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15 March 2023 | Story Prof Corli Witthuhn | Photo Sonia Small
Prof Corli Witthuhn
Prof Corli Witthuhn the outgoing Vice-Rector: Research and Internationalisation

‘A Decade of Impactful Research and Internationalisation’ - an apt description of Prof Corli Witthuhn’s tenure as Vice-Rector: Research and Internationalisation.

As my second term in the position of Vice-Rector: Research and Internationalisation comes to an end, I thought it fitting to summarise a few of the highlights of the past decade. Highlights were indeed many, and it is important to note that these are just brief extracts from some notable areas.

The past ten years have been a period of exceptional development and maturation in the portfolio of research and internationalisation at the UFS. It has also been a time of immense personal and professional growth for me, and truly represents the pinnacle of my academic career. I am humbled by the many highlights that have characterised the UFS research journey over this period, and am deeply indebted to a team of innovative, dedicated, and multi-talented academic and support staff members, as well as national and international stakeholders, without whom these achievements would not have been possible.

Developing excellent researchers

Nurturing young research talent and providing appropriate research mentorship has always been a passion and aspiration in my career. I am particularly proud of the strides made over the past ten years in attracting and developing research talent at the UFS, as reflected by

• the increased diversity of UFS researchers;
• support for emerging scholars;
• the expansion of our research capacity through the appointment of talented research fellows; and
• the increased number and quality of postgraduate students and postdoctoral fellows who are drawn to the UFS.

During my term, I strongly advocated the principle that a doctoral degree should be a prerequisite for the appointment of academic staff. This has contributed to a shift in the number of academic staff holding doctoral degrees as their highest qualification – from 39,5% in 2012 to 58% in 2022. In turn, their appointment improves our capacity to supervise doctoral students.

In addition, support staff were encouraged to obtain postgraduate degrees, which facilitated access to career paths previously closed to them. Many staff members in the Directorate Research Development (DRD), the Centre for Graduate Support (CGS), the Library and Information Services (LIS), and the Office for International Affairs (OIA) have obtained master’s and even doctoral degrees.

The following development initiatives, established during my tenure, deserve special mention:

Prestige Scholars and Future Professoriate Mentoring Programmes

These two recent mentoring programmes follow a holistic development approach that includes personal, academic, and professional development strategies and interventions. The Prestige Scholars Programme has contributed to the development of NRF-rated researchers in the Y- and P-rating categories, and many of the participants have been promoted to professorial rank. This programme has been commended by external reviewers as a ‘best practice’ model for early career development in South Africa. It has directly led to fundable intellectual projects, extended international collaboration, and increased research output (e.g., the number of subsidised units rose from 566 in 2012 to 1 400 in 2021). The Prestige Scholars Programme has been invaluable in promoting the regional demographic profile of UFS staff.

The first cohort of the Future Professoriate Mentoring Programme completed the programme at the end of 2022. The individualised attention and group mentoring had a significant impact on the performance of these young academics. Twelve of the 28 participants have received NRF-ratings during the past two years. This cohort was also noteworthy for the publication of eight books with prestigious international publishers. Fifteen of the participants have been promoted to Associate Professor level and one to Full Professor at the time of writing. Five received teaching excellence awards in 2022. Two participated in the University of Michigan Presidential Scholarship Programme (UMAPS) in 2022, and four completed productive sabbaticals at international universities in America and Europe.

Staff productivity

Staff productivity has shown an encouraging upward trajectory over the past ten years, with the total number of publication units increasing from 566 in 2012 to 1 400 in 2021. The publication output units (books, conference proceedings, and journal articles) as measured by and reported to the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) indicates consistent growth, especially over the past five years. The UFS excelled in the publication of books. Over an eight-year period, the institution produced the most subsidy-qualifying book outputs in the South African higher education sector.

NRF Ratings

NRF rating remains an important yardstick against which to measure the standard of our research activities. Over the past ten years, we have shown consistent, and in some categories (for example in the Y-rating, which refers to researchers 40 years and younger with the potential to establish themselves within a five-year period of evaluation), exceptional growth in the number of NRF-rated researchers:

2012 2022 increase


A central platform of our research enterprise that has been important to me, is the need to identify, develop, and assist black and female researchers to excel and establish themselves in the competitive academic environment that characterises research-led universities. The number of rated black researchers increased from 7% in 2017 to 19% in 2022, and the number of rated female researchers rose from 29% in 2017 to 35% in 2022.

Research chairs

The UFS has doubled the number of SARChI Research Chairs over the past 10 years. The UFS currently hosts six SARChI Research Chairs funded by the National Research Foundation (NRF) and the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI). Five of these have Tier 1 status and four are held by women researchers.

The UFS SARChI Research Chairs (and their holders) are:

• Solid State Luminescent and Advanced Materials (Prof Hendrik Swart)
• Higher Education and Human Development (Prof Melanie Walker)
• Disease Resistance and Quality in Crops (Prof Maryke Labuschagne)
• Vector-Borne and Zoonotic Pathogens (Prof Felicity Burt)
• Pathogenic Yeasts (Prof Carlien Pohl-Albertyn)
• Strengthening Urban Economies: People, Place, Production and Policy (Prof Ivan Turok)

The UFS also currently houses one SANRAL (Prof Loyiso Jita) and one ETDP SETA (Prof Pat Mafora) Research Chair in Mathematics and Science Education within the Faculty of Education.

The UFS Library and Information Services (LIS) has expanded its services during my tenure and is an invaluable resource that underpins our scholarship. Over the past ten years, we have embraced rapid technological advances and global trends in Information Science. The newly established Centre for Digital Scholarship provides a one-stop facility for academics, support staff, and students to access the many resources available at the university. It supports and develops the research and teaching needs of staff and students in the digital environment.

Postgraduate students

The growth in postgraduate student numbers during my tenure is particularly gratifying. The number of doctoral students has approximately doubled (from 531 in 2012 to 1 042 in 2022), and the number of postdoctoral fellows has more than tripled (from 64 in 2012 to 214 in 2021). Postgraduate students contribute significantly to the UFS’ research efforts, and our output and growth in postgraduate student numbers reflect the institute’s increasing visibility as a centre of innovation and competitive research.

The UFS Centre for Graduate Support (formerly Postgraduate School) has expanded and evolved over the past decade. It has taken on additional administrative and support functions that provide streamlined and comprehensive support to postgraduate students – from application to graduation. Its Research Capacity Development Programme assists master’s and doctoral students through academic writing interventions, funding, and the monitoring of student progress using the innovative Graduate Research Management (GRM) system. Five provincial outreach and seven international research capacity development workshops were held in the period under review, and 289 academic writing consultations took place.

International Affairs

During the past decade, we have developed a vision for comprehensive internationalisation at the UFS, with a specific focus on research and innovation. Internationalisation of the curriculum, virtual exchanges, and co-curricular internationalisation at home activities have become entrenched at the university. We focused on developing new partnerships and collaborations in Africa, while continuing to strengthen our ties with the Global North. International student services and administrative processes have been renewed and aligned under the leadership of the Office for International Affairs (OIA). The OIA was reimagined as a strategic enabling centre for the institutional internationalisation process.

Investment in equipment for flagship focus areas

The past decade has witnessed considerable investments in upgrading the infrastructure and equipment of UFS research facilities. These interventions have contributed to placing us at the forefront of several research disciplines. Recent developments and acquisitions (among others) include

• high-resolution Orbitrap mass spectrometer for the South African Doping Control Laboratory (SADoCoL) worth R10 million;
• X-ray system for the Department of Physics, representing the first of such equipment on the African continent;
• advanced electron microscopy instruments that make the UFS an undisputed leader in this field, worth R65 million;
• biosafety Level (BSL) 3 laboratory in the Department of Medical Virology for the study of zoonotic diseases;
• upgrading the laboratories and infrastructure of the National Health Laboratory Service and the Animal Research Centre; and
• development of an Innovation Hub on the Paradys Experimental Farm.

Increasing NRF and third-stream income

During my tenure, the university managed to more than double its income from NRF research activities, from R25 919 231 in 2012 to R65 811 564 in 2022. 

Various innovative ways of generating valuable, sustainable third-stream income were also launched and expanded during this period, resulting in our generated income being recorded in 2022 at an impressive R107 537 743. 

In conclusion, it has been a privilege to lead the Research and Internationalisation portfolio of the UFS over the past decade. I have enjoyed the support of a strong team central to our research development efforts. Their hard work has been pivotal in advancing the institutional vision of a student-centred and regionally engaged university that contributes to development and social justice through the production of globally competitive graduates and knowledge.

Prof Corli Witthuhn
Vice-Rector: Research and Internationalisation 
April 2013-March 2023

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