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Ten lessons from UJ: Ten years later 2005 – 2014

What does it take to merge three institutions established under an undemocratic South Africa, and create a reputable University anchored in Africa, recognised amongst the top impactful institutions globally, in just ten years?​

The Vice-Chancellor (VC) and Principal of the University of Johannesburg, Prof Ihron Rensburg has been the leading steward of the phenomenon known as South Africa’s most successful university merger, the University of Johannesburg (UJ). In celebratory reflections at the annual UJ Stakeholder Report Presentation on Thursday, 13 August 2015, Prof Rensburg shared 10 lessons used and applied to bring UJ to its 10-year-old milestone. ​​

Lesson One

Have well-established academic programmes and progressive teaching and learning traditions

“It was important for us to secure illustrious programmes,” said Prof Rensburg. The University has a critical mass of magnetic flagship academic programmes. Furthermore, UJ’s innovative teaching and learning initiatives such as its inclusive First Year Experience (FYE) programme ensures that students not only cope but excel. This resulted in a graduate output near an optimum of 12,300 per annum and graduate employment at 98% within 18 months of graduation.

Lesson Two

Establish research traditions

“The research output tripling in the first decade is a result of combining generalised and specialised output growth,” said Prof Rensburg.

Institution wide an incentive-based environment enabled UJ to grow its publications footprint with 86% by focusing on international publications. A specialised focus was to gain a critical mass of NRF Chairs and external and internal funded Centres of Excellence while also establishing smaller Research Groups and Centres. Supporting academics to become NRF rated academics and pushing PhD as academic requirement are further strategies that assisted in UJ’s growing research.

Lesson Three

Have functional, effective and responsive governance, leadership and management, where each partner understands and fulfils its designate role.

Prof Rensburg confirmed that UJ works because of its collective nature: “UJ is a collaborative project between the Governing Council, UJ Trust, Senate, IF, Vice-Chancellor, the Management Executive Committee (MEC), the Executive Leadership Group (ELG), faculty leaders and academic boards, Student Representative Council, and labour organisations.”

Lesson Four

Have world-class, innovative, functional, effective and responsive policies, systems, processes, and compliance.

By ensuring the functions behind the University works well, UJ has established itself as excellent in the higher education sphere, these include: Academic administration; Finance; Governance and committee administration. Accountability and Reporting ensures that systems and processes run smoothly. Other areas of exceptional professional support services in the University include The Library, ICS, Research and Innovation, and Internationalisation.

Lesson Five

Have a mass of supported, dynamic, ambitious and productive staff.

A University’s staff impacts its module success rates; graduate output and research output. While improved Staff Culture Audits ensure that management has its finger on the pulse of human resources; staff’s response to the vision and mission statement ensures that the entire organisation move in a singular direction.

Lesson Six

Have a functional, effective and transforming student culture and traditions.

Through the Student Charter, celebrating student academic success, a nurturing residence life, and inclusive off-campus student activities such as Sport and Arts and Culture the University ensures that its student population receives a transformative, meaningful experience at UJ.

Lesson Seven

Encourage an institution that is alive and responsive to matters of national import.

Transformation and change management was employed at UJ and this improved the University’s employment equity profile. The University invested substantial funds to ensure that students are part of the inclusion. Programmes such as those in the Academic Development and Support and specifically the FYE programme ensure that student have every chance to bridge the gap between secondary and tertiary education. By topping up NSFAS and investing in access, UJ has played its part in assisting students from all walks of life to realise their dreams.

Lesson Eight

Invest in world class campuses.

Investments in excess of R2.5 BN ensured that UJ’s campuses are of exceptional standard.

Lesson Nine

Encourage sound, world-class finances.

Through having a balanced or better operating budget and a strong balance sheet as well as a rolling five-year finance plan focused on sustainability UJ remains a financially sound university.

Lesson Ten

Employ an established brand and reputation management

This is evident in UJ’s good rankings despite having merged just 10 years ago:

  • Top 4% Global QS University Ranking, large comprehensive but without medical school, now younger than 20 years
  • No. 63 Ranking in QS BRICS Ranking (2014)
  • Top 10 Africa URAP University Rank: No. 8
  • Arts and Humanities, and Natural Sc. ranked in QS Top 400 (2014)
  • Five Subjects/Disciplines in Elite Top 200 QS (2014) University Rankings: Education, Law, Politics, English, Geography, with Nine on the brink
  • Now poised to enter THE ranking
  • Consistently No. 2 SA University Brand (S/Times)
  • Only Africa member of Universitas21
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