UJ’s focus on societal change makes it the leader in SDG1

The University of Johannesburg (UJ) in South Africa has been named as the institution that makes the greatest contribution in the world towards Sustainable Development Goal 1 (SDG 1), aimed at ending poverty in all its forms by 2030.

At 46th position, it was included in the overall top 100 of the Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings 2023, which are geared to assessing institutions’ contribution to the SDGs.

“It is gratifying to see that our university has once again been recognised for its significant contribution to societal impact, sustainability and innovation, through the SDGs.

“This is a testament to the outstanding work and dedication of our staff, postdoctoral fellows, students, research associates, research divisions, centres and institutes,” Professor Letlhokwa Mpedi, vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Johannesburg, told University World News following the announcement.

Professor Lauren Graham, the director of the Centre for Social Development in Africa at the University of Johannesburg, spoke to University World News about what the institution is doing, strategically and practically, to advance SDG 1.

UWN: What does SDG 1 mean to UJ? In other words, what are some of the aspects the institution includes in its approach to ‘no poverty’?

LG: For starters, it is worth noting that UJ is a relatively new university. It emerged [in 2005] from the joining together of a university that was reserved for black students under apartheid [Vista University’s East Rand and Soweto campuses], a technikon [or, university of technology known as Technikon Witwatersrand] and a university [Rand Afrikaans University] that was a well-resourced bastion of apartheid, exclusively serving white students.

This means that the university embraces a transformational agenda in its approach to teaching and learning, as well as research. The university’s student population reflects the demographic of the country, with a large number of its students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The university has instilled an approach of breaking down the barriers between ‘town and gown’. This is because the university understands that its existence is only as relevant as its ability to generate knowledge for the service and benefit of society.

Thus, from its inception, the university has had to work to overcome inequalities. A large part of the fabric of the university is about expanding access to education for students from impoverished backgrounds – over 60% of our students are supported by UJ bursaries (the Missing Middle fund).

Just under a third of students come from the most impoverished schools. This commitment to expanding access to higher education for students from disadvantaged backgrounds is, therefore, a key strategy for overcoming poverty in UJ’s view.

In addition, the university encourages its academics to engage in impactful research that makes a marked difference in society. Community engagement is promoted and valued, alongside excellence in research and teaching, and this shows in the way in which many of our staff engage in research [some examples are mentioned later on].

UWN: The institution has come out in 46th position in the overall impact ranking. What does this mean in terms of the day-to-day functioning of the institution? Do people include it in what they talk about and in what they do? Is it part of the everyday narrative?

LG: It is certainly part of the narrative. This impact ranking is crucial for the university as it allows us to demonstrate to the community, and the students and their families, that they are getting a world-class education. The ranking also allows us to attract research partnerships that can continue to drive the success of the university.

UWN: The achievements appear to be the outcome of an ongoing process. What process or strategy has UJ followed over time to include the SDGs in what appears to be its strategic direction?

LG: Under the leadership of our first vice-chancellor, Professor Ihron Rensburg, the university put in place Strategy 2025, centred on the single strategic vision of Global Excellence and Stature (GES), which was understood to mean ‘accessible excellence’ – firstly, promoting excellence in research and teaching without compromising on ensuring that the university is accessible to students from deprived backgrounds and, secondly, ensuring that teaching, research and innovation were cutting edge and in the service of society.

Under the leadership of Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, vice-chancellor from 2018-22, the GES focus was retained, with a specific focus on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

However, the emphasis on service to society was retained. Although the SDGs were not specifically mentioned in the strategy, the understanding of how the university must serve broader society through developing cutting-edge research and innovation that could tackle some of society’s key challenges is a value that has continued to inform the UJ strategy.

The new vice-chancellor, Professor Letlhokwa Mpedi, has now explicitly foregrounded the SDGs as he has built on the strategic vision of Global Excellence and Stature, with a focus on 4IR for societal impact.

UWN How long has this process been or when did it start and at what levels have the SDGs been included?

LG: Strategy 2025, where these goals were explicitly stated, was put into place in 2014. It is understood to be a living document that the leadership and staff consistently reflect on and update (as per the example of framing GES around 4IR above) but the core values that underpin the strategy have remained in place.

UWN: Were resources diverted to refocus the university? What type of investment are we talking about?

LG: A dedicated GES fund was set up to support postgraduate students, postdoctoral research fellows and staff who were engaged in research that aligned with the goals of the strategy, and which showed promise of having high impact in society as well as scientifically. This is an ongoing funding mechanism managed by UJ’s Research Office.

In addition, it became evident that many of our students, despite coming from impoverished backgrounds, could not access the government’s National Student Financial Aid Scheme, or NSFAS, to fund their studies.

In response, the university set up its Missing Middle Fund to support the studies of such students. Today, more than 60% of UJ’s students benefit from this fund, ensuring that the university is able to expand access to excellent quality education, regardless of the socio-economic background of the student.

UWN: Operationally, given the emphasis on the SDGs, what happens at the level of teaching and learning as well as research?

LG: In terms of Strategic Objective 2 [of Strategy 2025] the university focuses on excellence in teaching and learning and, in terms of Strategic Objective 4, on creating a student-friendly learning and living environment.

The operationalisation of these objectives means there is a focus on excellence in teaching, with a strong emphasis on research on the scholarship of teaching and learning to ensure that staff remain at the cutting edge, both of their expertise in their disciplines, as well as in pedagogy.

But this is balanced by a focus on support to ensure students succeed. This means that there is a strong emphasis on providing quality housing, ensuring that students who face food insecurity have access to food through a nutrition programme, and other forms of support. A pedagogy of care is highly valued.

With regard to research, the GES fund has supported research and postgraduate students whose work shows high promise of impact on society.

The establishment of the Technology Transfer Office has ensured that innovative ideas that show promise of solving societal challenges can be brought to fruition and benefit society.

The university also invested in research-intensive centres and institutes, many of which were framed around tackling society’s pressing development challenges.

Examples include the Centre for Social Development in Africa, the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation and the Sustainable Human Settlement and Construction Research Centre.

In addition, with support from the Department of Science and Innovation and the National Research Foundation, several research chairs focused on development issues were established, including the Research Chair in Social Policy and Development, and the Research Chair in Industrial Development.

UWN: Back to SDG 1. What do you practically do to pursue this?

LG: In addition to investing in research centres, institutes and chairs that focus on poverty issues, there are also innovative ways in which some of the centres conduct their research, which has ensured that the research has a direct impact, both on local communities and on policy development.

Establishments such as the Centre for Social Development in Africa (CSDA) conduct their research in collaboration with NGOs or government departments. Their research is always aimed at developing innovative policy or programmatic interventions.

There are several examples of the work done. For instance, the CSDA conducted a research project in Doornkop, Soweto – one of the areas in Johannesburg with the highest levels of multiple deprivation.

The focus of the research was on understanding the uptake of the Child Support Grant (CSG) – a cash transfer that reaches over 12 million children via their caregivers, who are predominantly women – its uses, access to other basic and welfare services, and the gendered effects of the CSG.

One of the key findings was that the value of the CSG was eroded for caregivers because they had to spend the money on services that they were entitled to receive free as part of the package of services that the City of Johannesburg offers to vulnerable households.

The CSDA arranged a community meeting at which the findings were presented and, in partnership with a local NGO, convinced the city to implement a system through which CSG beneficiaries would automatically be eligible for a basket of other services, thus allowing them to direct the CSG funds to food and other basic household needs.

The research also highlighted how grant recipients were engaging in economic activities, evidence that was used to inform how the city supported informal economic activity in the community, demonstrating the value of the research for policy.

UWN: How do you measure your outcomes in terms of SDG 1?

LG: Teaching outcomes are assessed both through the registration of students and the percentage of students who are coming from socio-economically deprived backgrounds.

Throughput rates are also a key indicator we track so that we are able to track the extent to which we are able to effectively support students to succeed.

Research that is impacting the SDGs is tracked and incentivised, both through an assessment of the scientific impact of research that deals with the SDGs (citations, journal impact) and by capturing information about research that connects with development challenges through the community engagement office.

When publications are captured, we capture information about whether the publication addresses any of the SDGs.

We also ask staff to report on any impact their research has, whether this is on policy, programmatic level, local community impact or the innovative developments or patents.

These are outputs that are captured in staff key performance indicators, or KPIs, and, therefore, valued alongside excellent research and teaching.

UWN: Are the investment and focus [on SDGs] worth your while? Are you getting a return on investment?

LG: The research output contributes to advancing the mission of the university, which is to conduct research in a manner that is engaging to communities. This is invaluable in enhancing the university’s reputation.

Rankings also help to bring universities’ social impact to the fore, creating a positive public dialogue and reinforcing universities’ achievements, merits and reputations. Furthermore, rankings are an important measure for [attracting] funding.

UWN: Generally speaking, what value do rankings add, if any?

LG: Research shows that rankings influence people’s decisions when choosing a university to study, whether locally or abroad.

People generally do not have the luxury of visiting the universities they intend to apply to or where they are offered spaces, especially abroad.

This is where the rankings come in handy – to provide unbiased and objective information about such institutions beforehand.

University rankings also serve another important purpose. They assist universities in gauging the success of their strategic plans and how these improve the quality of their academic programmes and research impact.