‘How we did it’ – UP EBIT and Theology Deans on how they cracked the QS World University Rankings’ global top 100

Posted on April 08, 2021

In the latest QS World University Rankings, the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology (EBIT) has been named one of the top 50 places in the world to study minerals and mining engineering, while its Faculty of Theology and Religion was ranked in the top 100 for studying theology, religion and divinity.

These subjects and their departments significantly contribute to UP’s drive to be a research-intensive institution that is recognised internationally for its quality, relevance and impact, and for leading the way in strengthening higher education institutions in Africa.

The heads of departments in which minerals and mining engineering are offered – Professor Roelf Mostert and Professor Ronny Webber-Youngman respectively – and Professor Jerry Pillay, Dean of the Faculty of Theology and Religion, discuss how they achieved their QS rankings.

Best-kept secret

“For years, we joked that our department was the best-kept secret,” says Prof Webber-Youngman, head of the Department of Mining Engineering. “We were doing a considerable amount of relevant, impactful research, but our visibility in the industry and internationally did not reflect this.”

“Take the international Society of Mining Professors (SOMP), of which all our academic staff are registered members – many of the professors had heard of UP, but until 2010, they knew very little, if anything, about our 60-year-old mining engineering department.” This changed when Prof Webber-Youngman was appointed as SOMP’s representative for Africa in 2010 and as president in 2014.

“We started raising awareness about engineering in South Africa and Africa, and the whole society visited South Africa; we co-hosted the trip with Wits University [The University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg],” Prof Webber-Youngman explains. “This certainly contributed to greater global visibility about who we are and what we do. From then on, we have been focusing on increasing our visibility with extra emphasis over the past three years through an annual review publication which we publish online and distribute locally and worldwide to our fellow SOMP international colleagues. It always receives very complimentary feedback.

“I cannot emphasise enough the importance of universities sharing what they are doing and what they offer. In terms of what we offer, for example, our department has the only Kumba Virtual Reality Centre for mining in Africa, where our students are able to virtually experience being in a mine underground.

“On the research front, we have worked hard to increase our high-impact research output and citations, and on the quality of graduates and postgraduates that UP sends out in the field. The more quality graduates you put out there, the greater your reputation. We empower our students with technical and non-technical skills such as communication and leadership skills. Our students and graduates are all highly in demand in the mining engineering field and, to my knowledge, only few, if any, of them are unemployed.”

Research related to mining from different perspectives and on overlapping aspects is conducted in almost all of the university’s nine faculties, as well as in each of the four schools in EBIT. Research in the Mining Engineering Department includes:

  • a preliminary qualitative evaluation of a hydraulic splitting cylinder for breaking rock in deep-level mining;
  • an integrated problem-solving framework for discipline-specific professional development in mining engineering;
  • some rock engineering aspects of multi-reef pillar extraction on the Ventersdorp Contact Reef;
  • a limit equilibrium fracture zone model to investigate seismicity in coal mines;
  • rock burst support in shallow-dipping tabular stopes at great depth;
  • simulation of tabular mine face advance rates using a simplified fracture zone module; and  
  • optimisation of the load-and-haul operation at an open-cast colliery.

#UPMiningMatters 

Prof Webber-Youngman has been instrumental in establishing the #UPMiningMatters drive to increase the visibility of transdisciplinary mining-related research being done at UP. “Mining-related research is being done in nine of our faculties. In our annual review, we also started raising awareness about UP’s faculty-wide involvement to further emphasise the footprint of mining-related research on campus.” 

UP currently has almost 100 researchers who have published mining-related research locally and internationally; this has increased the visibility of the department’s large footprint on campus. For the past five years – through the Mining Resilience Research Centre (MRRC), established in the Mining Engineering Department – increasing emphasis has been placed on transdisciplinary mining and mining-related research. This includes collaborating with IT researchers working in virtual reality and immersive education; environmental scientists researching mine closure rehabilitation; and mechanical engineering researchers working on non-explosive rock breaking techniques in the mining scenario, to name a few.

A significant factor that has contributed to the department’s success is their partnerships with universities, industry and alumni locally and internationally. “We interact closely with several universities worldwide and with mining CEOs to ensure we are industry relevant,” says Prof Webber-Youngman. “The current CEOs of some of the largest companies in South Africa are all alumni from the mining engineering department; this includes Harmony Gold, Goldfields, Impala Platinum, Murray & Roberts, ARM/Assmang, Siyanda Resources and Ivanho.

“Our alumni have made a major contribution to students with a talent for research to pursue their master’s degrees and PhDs. The greater the number of master’s and PhDs we produce, the greater the number of articles we publish in high-quality international journals – and from this, the greater the number of citations and recognition.”

Accelerated postgraduate pipeline

Ten years ago the Mining Engineering Department started a programme to accelerate its postgraduate pipeline by supporting postgraduate students in the department on a full-time basis. In the past 15 years, the department has seen more than 50 postgraduates achieve a qualification. They currently have 12 full-time postgraduate students registered (one PhD, nine master’s and two honours) on full-time postgraduate bursaries. They have equity targets and ensure equal opportunity; 55% of full-time students are from historically disadvantaged backgrounds.

“We assess their research projects as part of the selection process for the bursaries, as they are an indicator of the students’ ability to do research; this has proved incredibly successful in terms of growing our research pipeline,” Prof Webber-Youngman explains. “It is one of the department’s biggest success stories and has certainly contributed to our QS ranking.

Relevance and contribution to society

“Our QS ranking in the top 50 universities worldwide confirms that we are achieving our academic objectives of relevance and contributing to society,” says Prof Roelf Mostert, Head of the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgical Engineering. This department, which has been going for 63 years, deals with the minerals extracted from the ore body in the earth’s crust. The minerals are then processed into useful and valuable materials or metals.

“In the QS ranking process, 70% is related to research, and in our department, research is a top priority,” Prof Mostert explains. “Our focus is on growing both the number and quality of outputs. High-quality outputs achieve high citation and H- index values, both of which feature strongly in the QS subject matter rankings.”

Increasing the number of outputs is, of course, also important, and to enhance both the quality and quantity of the department’s research focus, the EBIT Faculty appointed a Vice-Dean whose core responsibility is to lead research, with an emphasis on inter- and transdisciplinary research. Targets have been set for publication in high-impact journals which are read widely and attract high citation values.

Examples of transdisciplinary research in the minerals field include minerals and mining law (in collaboration with the Faculty of Law); and forensic engineering that has an impact on mine health and safety incident investigation research.

Collaboration with SA science councils and universities worldwide

“We collaborate closely with researchers at the South African science councils and universities worldwide to enhance the interchange of ideas and facilitate access to scarce research equipment,” says Prof Mostert. “We focus strongly on industry collaboration and industry research Chairs, which make for cutting-edge and industry-relevant research projects, and provide much-needed funding for the appointment of postdoctoral students and for master’s and PhD student stipends.”

Every year, each of the final-year undergraduate students in the department conducts a research project, some of which are part of larger postgraduate research projects. Improving the quality of postgraduates year on year to ensure quality research outputs starts in the honours year, says Prof Mostert. “In our faculty, postgraduate studies start with honours or the fifth year of engineering studies. In our department, entrants to our honours programme come from a wide ‘catchment area’, with good students from the natural sciences, engineering and engineering technology universities being accepted into the programme.”

Mastering the art of research

One of the four honours modules is a research project module that focuses on “mastering the art of research”, to quote from the textbook used (Booth et.al, The Craft of Research). A real-life research problem is identified by each student and they then conduct a research project, making use of published research and data. “At the end of the year, after the final research report has been concluded and the three theoretical modules have been completed, the student is well equipped for conducting master’s and doctoral research in our laboratories,” says Prof Mostert. This encourages more students to do postgraduate research and some of the final-year projects are good enough to be published. Good honours students are then identified by academic staff for funded master’s research.

Over the past five years, the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgical Engineering has had an average of 58 postgraduates graduating per year. The numbers reflect the country’s demographics and include good students from all over Africa. “Postdoctoral students are a key element of our research,” says Prof Mostert. “They are often part of a larger research programme, incorporating the research of a number of master’s and doctoral students. In this way, you get a good multiplying effect, leading to good quantity and quality of research output.”

Best of its kind

In addition to the QS ranking, the UP undergraduate metallurgical engineering degree programme has been ranked the best of its kind in South Africa for 2020 by the Minerals Education Trust Fund (METF). This is the second consecutive year that the department has achieved this feat.

The METF supports tertiary education institutions that provide the minerals and mining industry with a pipeline of talent. It seeks to ensure that academic departments of this nature remain sustainable by providing funding, which is used primarily to augment the salaries of academics with expertise in geology, metallurgical and mining engineering.

Relevant, contextual and transformative research

With its top 100 QS ranking, the Faculty of Theology and Religion’s citations ranked among the top worldwide, ahead of some of the most prestigious universities in Europe.

“This can be attributed to the relevance, contextual and transformative nature of research; our local and international partnerships; and our focus on publishing in international journals with high international impact,” says the Dean of the Faculty, Prof Jerry Pillay.

“We have worked hard to ensure our faculty’s entire academic staff have doctorates, and this helps us achieve our research goals and strengthen our research output and international impact. Outputs are important to remain successful and sustainable, as we draw most of our income for the faculty through research.”

Related to the issue of doctorates, most of the faculty’s academic staff are rated by the National Research Foundation (NRF), and are encouraged to improve their rating levels. They currently have one A-rated researcher and an increasing pool of B-rated researchers. NRF ratings significantly contribute to research output and impact, locally and internationally.

A focus on justice and peace

“The idea of relevant, contextual, transformative research is to provide new knowledge that inspires people to reconsider what we think and do in our everyday lives to achieve social impact and encourage positive change,” Prof Pillay explains. “We focus on justice and peace, which are big issues globally, and our research is aligned with this. We use the term ‘glocal’ to describe what we do: we act locally and reach globally in dealing with issues like poverty, hunger, water crises and most of the issues raised in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are a major focus for our faculty.

“For example, we research how to alleviate poverty by engaging communities and the homeless to find solutions. The emphasis is on engaging or ‘working with’ people in a range of partnerships, including government, church-based and civic structures. People read what we put out. Last year, when the pandemic hit, I asked my academic staff to work on a series of articles on COVID-19 and theology, and this immediately addressed the societal need for research that is relevant.”

A reawakening to the realities of life

Prof Pillay says the faculty does not only focus on training people for ordained ministry in the church. “Many of our students want to apply faith in the marketplace. There is a revival of religious introspection in terms of what is happening in the world; people are thinking more about life, the afterlife, spiritual and religious issues. There is a reawakening to the realities of life. People from a wide range of careers – from finance to medicine – are enrolling to do the postgraduate diploma with us, which is intended for students with qualifications in other academic disciplines but who wish to pursue studies in theology and religion.”

The faculty currently has more than 350 honours, master’s and PhD students, and while the 104-year-old faculty has traditionally focused on Christian theology, as part of being relevant, contextual and transformative, today it includes a diversity of faiths. For example, they have students researching Christianity and Islam, Hinduism and African Traditional Religions. Their first Muslim PhD student in Theology and Islam graduates in April this year.

International collaborations

The faculty has a significant number of international collaborations with other institutions and faculties, dealing with theology and transdisciplinary fields. For example, they are collaborating with partners in Europe, Africa and the US on religion and sustainable development. “We also have international projects dealing with urban theology and development,” says Prof Pillay. “Urban theology addresses the social justice and ethical issues in the development of urban areas and smart cities. Do they provide better structures for the poor or will the poor be pushed further out, as has historically happened?”

Almost all of the faculty’s research projects include international research associates. “International partnerships work well these days, enhanced by technology and online engagement. Africa has become a key research partner in the world as everyone wants to address research issues here. Universities in Africa need to embrace this opportunity by being more targeted in the kind of research they do, and make sure they are relevant, contextual and transformative.”

Published by Xolani Mathibela

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