“We don’t see ourselves in ivory towers,” says Professor Wim de Villiers, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of Stellenbosch University. “We are having a huge societal impact.” As one of South Africa’s leading research-intensive universities, Stellenbosch is committed to using its expertise for the benefit of society, with a particular focus on addressing issues that affect Africa.
The university’s history dates back to the 19th century and the campus, set among the Boland Mountains in the Winelands District of the Western Cape, is now home to an academic community of 30,000 students. More than 10,000 of these are postgraduate, and 14 per cent of the total are international students, hailing from over 100 different countries. The university’s inclusive philosophy aims to attract the very best candidates, regardless of background or culture, and courses are taught in both English and Afrikaans.
Stellenbosch University is internationally renowned, offering 18 joint degrees with universities across Europe, the Americas and Africa. But, while it is proud of the impact it has globally, its focus is on the benefits it can bring to its own continent.
“We collaborate with 43 different African countries,” says Professor De Villiers, “with more than 350 active projects on a whole variety of themes, such as water, energy, agriculture and technology, thereby empowering communities and improving access for people to go to university.”
Among its initiatives is the African Doctoral Academy, which helps PhD students from around the continent to become more successful in their studies, with summer and winter schools held on the Stellenbosch campus.
Much of the university’s research is carried out through its seven Centres of Excellence, covering such areas as biomedical TB research, renewable and sustainable energy, as well as invasion biology. It also has 26 research chairs, often international leaders in their field, focusing on such themes as engineering electromagnetics and postharvest technology.
The work of these academics helps to shape policy and bring about major advances both nationally and internationally. For example, the Centre of Renewable and Sustainable Energy advises the South African government on where to place solar energy plants. And, in 2014, surgeons from the university performed the world’s first successful penile transplant. “We look at ourselves as being a university that’s a national asset and also an international player,” says Professor De Villiers.
A CENTRE OF INNOVATION
Stellenbosch is also known as a leader in innovation, based on patents filed under the Patent Cooperation Treaty, an international patent law treaty. “We produce more patents than any other university in South Africa,” says Professor De Villiers. “And we recently received an award from the government for how we manage innovation at the university.”
Notable inventions include an eco-friendly shark barrier developed by researchers in marine biology. Using a visual and magnetic system to protect beachgoers, it acts as an alternative to shark nets which might kill sharks but also result in the death of many other sea animals, such as dolphins and sea turtles.
Far from being an “ivory tower”, the university sees itself as “a knowledge partner to government, industry and communities”, says Professor De Villiers. By identifying and responding to the challenges faced by Africa and the rest of the world it is achieving its goal of ensuring that society as a whole benefits from the expertise of its academics.