UP hits the road with its innovative approach
Pretoria - The University of Pretoria wants to make a real contribution to a just and equitable society.
Vice-chancellor and principal, Professor Tawana Kupe, said the university’s vision was to be a leading research-intensive university in Africa that is recognised internationally for its quality, relevance and impact.
Addressing a media day yesterday during which the new Engineering 4.0 facility for teaching and research on transport and mobility was officially opened, he said the university was one of South Africa’s top academic institutions with an international profile, striving to have an impact in areas of Sustainable Development Goals.
Despite the devastation of Covid-19 there was a silver lining in that the university had managed to complete the 2020 academic year using technology to take its teaching and examinations online.
The university currently has 52 700 students, making it one of the largest contact universities in the country, with a student population reflective of the country’s diversity. Of these students about 20% were NSFAS students and, sadly, while some were able to pay their fees, a majority fell into the category of “missing middle”.
With the new blended learning model – a mix of contact and online classes – Kupe hoped to be able to offer a UP education to more students in future.
Size, he said, mattered to UP with its wide range of facilities across seven campuses and nine faculties, 92 centres and institutes, and 30 DST/NRF and industry chairs.
With 67% of its staff having a PhD and 565 being NRF-rated academics, the university could boast of being the largest producer of research in South Africa and was in the top 1% in the world in eight subject fields.
Each year the university had around 1 500 graduates and these were people who would go out into the world and make a contribution to society.
While the transition to totally online learning during lockdown had its challenges, such as getting laptops and data to students in need and assisting those staff and students struggling with the novelty of it, he believed it had shown many benefits.
One of these was that all lectures were recorded so there was no need to get left behind… a student who missed a lecture or needed to spend more time on it could go back and catch up.
The university of the future would not go 100% online, nor would it be 100% contact, but would use technology in the best possible way to teach effectively.
Fortunately, before lockdown the university had invested heavily in technology, with more funds diverted during the pandemic. Throughout they had measured the level of engagement of students and continued to adapt programs.
Kupe joked that if he needed an operation he would be happy to see the doctor’s certificate from UP which was one of the top medical faculties, while the university also boasted the only veterinary science faculty in the country, as well as the biggest faculty of theology and religion, a top law faculty, the first integrated elite sports science faculty and Gibs business school.
The university planned to create the most innovative square mile in the country, with a high concentration of innovation and technology on the Future Africa Institute, Engineering 4.0, CSIR and the Innovation Hub.
Engineering 4.0 – a reference to the Fourth Industrial Revolution – would leverage opportunities that come with artificial intelligence, big data and data science in research, teaching, training and testing of transport and mobility systems and smart cities.
Professor Wynand Steyn, head of the UP Department of Civil Engineering, said the research would focus on road construction, road use, traffic flow and smart transport systems which would help not only commuters but also areas such as logistics and agriculture.
A feature of the new facility is a strip of the N4 highway where the university collects real-time data and analyses road surfaces, traffic movement, density and type of traffic and emissions.
Also housed at Engineering 4.0 is a roads reference library, a timber construction laboratory, a concrete laboratory and pavement testing track.