Spotlighting the power of collaboration as UCT hosts the Worldwide Universities Network

31 May 2024 | Story Lisa Templeton. Photos Lerato Maduna. Read time 6 min.
‘Partnerships are greater than the sum of their parts’ was the theme of the day when UCT hosted members of the Worldwide Universities Network.
‘Partnerships are greater than the sum of their parts’ was the theme of the day when UCT hosted members of the Worldwide Universities Network.

On Monday, 20 May, the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Hasso Plattner School of Design Thinking Afrika (d-school Afrika) welcomed a high-level delegation of vice-chancellors (VC), provosts, pro vice-chancellors and Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) coordinators from universities across the global network, who’d been invited to detour to UCT while en route to the WUN Annual General Meeting (AGM) at the University of Pretoria.

It was a day to celebrate what Professor Jeff Murugan, UCT’s acting deputy vice-chancellor for Research and Internationalisation, dubbed “small-world networks” and global interconnectedness, and in which the university shared research projects which optimise multilateral partnerships and collaboration with institutions across Africa and the globe.

“There is significant impact when we leverage off one another’s networks. By bringing networks into contact with one another, we expand the scope of what we achieve,” said UCT Vice- Chancellor interim Emeritus Professor Daya Reddy, commenting on the power of strengthening partnerships to drive collective effort, and the opportunity that lay in bilateral research collaboration between universities.

Highlighting global research challenges in the African context

The theme for the WUN Presidents Forum 2024, which for the first time ran concurrently with the AGM of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA), was “Addressing Global Research Challenges in an African Context”.

“At UCT we wholeheartedly support the spirit and overarching goal of the WUN 2024 conference, of illuminating the high-quality research happening on the continent and in strengthening Africa’s position as a global player in contributing to the world’s research,” said Dr Linda Mtwisha, UCT’s executive director for Research.

“We believe in fair and equitable research partnerships and collaborations that leverage on complementary strengths in a way that makes the partnership greater than the sum of its parts.”

The day, which moved between the d-school Afrika and upper campus, served in part to share work being done at UCT, while opening up potential for future collaborations and providing a platform for networking within the WUN delegation.

Presentations by UCT researchers spanned everything from African urban waterways and anthropological impact to resurrection plants and food security. while also covering astrophysics and the importance of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) as a global observatory, applications of artificial intelligence, and innovative, cost-effective medical solutions from Africa, for Africa. These knowledge-sharing sessions all highlighted, in some way, the value of partnerships across Africa and beyond.

In addition, UCT’s transformative Vision 2030 of “unleashing human potential to create a fair and just society” and plans towards greater sustainability and a greener campus were shared. Delegates were taken on a Heritage Walk from upper campus down to middle campus, noting the ever-shifting landscape of heritage.

From multilateral to bilateral

“Our strategic partnership with UCT is extremely important for Bristol,” said the University of Bristol’s pro vice-chancellor for Education and Students, Professor Tansy Jessop. The UCT alumna added, “It enables academics from both universities to collaborate on some of the most pressing challenges of our time. These are reflected in our shared research interests in migration and mobility, hidden histories, environmental and social sustainability, climate change, public health, physics, and student well-being.”

UCT welcomed a high-level delegation of vice-chancellors, provosts, pro vice-chancellors and Worldwide Universities Network coordinators from universities across the global network on 20 May.

As founding members of the Africa Charter, UCT and Bristol are committed to co-creating more equitable and sustainable partnerships across Global North and Global South universities. Their deep partnership started within the WUN, where they have been co-leads of the Global Africa Group for many years. From that, a bilateral partnership grew. One of the first initiatives was the “Research without borders” cotutelle PhD Programme, followed by the UCT–Bristol Professorship and Fellowship Programme.

“Visiting UCT as part of the WUN conference delegation highlighted the power of partnership and synergies between our research and education interests,” Professor Jessop said.

Linking early career researchers with those who are established

The visiting delegates were very enthusiastic about their explosive visit to the blast chamber at UCT’s Blast Impact Survivability Research Unit (BISRU) laboratory, the only facility of its kind in the world where explosives can be detonated within a controlled laboratory environment on a campus.

Presented initially in a lecture hall by a young research team – Dr Sherlyn Gabriel (UCT), Dr Jack Denny (Southampton) and Dr Dain Farrimond (Sheffield) – they spoke of their collaborative investigation into the ever-growing issue of urban blast events from a structural engineering and human impact perspective. The team is specifically looking at the 2020 Beirut blast and the possible role of the grain silo in shielding the city from some of the impact.

“It’s been fantastic working with Sheffield and UCT,” Dr Denny said. “We all have active research agendas in the field of blast engineering, with slightly different interests, skills, methodologies and knowledge. It’s been great to collaborate over a sustained period, which has helped us share ideas, co-create research funding applications and develop a shared research agenda.”

He said there were multiple benefits to early career researchers working in an international collaboration which included more established researchers – one of the goals of WUN.

“For early career researchers, these experiences are important for career development and building a track record to strengthen our chances in future funding applications. Working alongside more established researchers representing each of the WUN institutions – Professor Steeve Chung Kim Yuen (UCT), Professor Genevieve Langdon (Sheffield) and Professor James Batchelor (Southampton) – has been really helpful.”

And what did it mean to present before the WUN delegation at UCT?

“Presenting our research to these esteemed networks and highlighting the benefits and opportunities which have arisen directly from our WUN early career research collaborations was a proud moment for me.”

Wrapping up the packed day, this was a point made by Emeritus Professor Reddy. In designing the day, he said, “We hoped not only that you would find the presentations interesting – so that they would spark ideas both within your universities and between us all – but also because many of them were exemplars of what the WUN can and does achieve.”

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