Reducing the Gini coefficient one degree at a time

2014-10-05 15:00

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He is from Pretoria. He is Afrikaans. And next year, he will be at the helm of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).

But he’s going to remain a Bulls fan.

At the door of Dr Albert van Jaarsveld’s office are large casts of the skulls of Mrs Ples and the fossil Australopithecus.

He is friendly, with an open face, a principal whom students will probably not hesitate to approach.

With his more than 100 published research articles in the natural sciences, Van Jaarsveld (54) is a respected researcher.

He currently holds the position of chief executive of the National Research Foundation (NRF).

He says nature has always been his passion. “I was inspired by Jacques Cousteau’s TV series on the marine environment. In my childhood, I found it of great interest.”

After his high school studies at Grey College in Bloemfontein, Van Jaarsveld went to the University of Pretoria, where he obtained a BSc in zoology and botany, later obtaining his PhD in zoology.

“I really wanted to be a marine biologist originally, but then just never got around to it. I got stuck at Tukkies and became interested in other things.”

He started as a junior lecturer at the department of zoology in 1984 and progressed to lecturer and later professor of zoology. In 1999, he was appointed director of the Centre for Environmental Studies.

“It was a new direction at the time, and they asked me to get it going. I spent several pleasant years there.”

The success of the centre resulted in him being offered a deanship at Stellenbosch University.

In 2002, he and his wife Nina, a quantity surveyor, packed up and moved to Stellenbosch, where he was appointed dean of the science faculty.

In 2007, he returned to Pretoria as vice-president of the NRF; and in 2009, he was appointed CEO.

He never imagined his life progressing like this. But it was meant to be, he says with a grin.

“When you walk into a deanship, you become an administrator.

“You decide that it’s no longer about your own CV but about the CVs of the people who work for you and how you can support them.

“I think that continued when I joined the NRF. I asked myself: ‘What can we do to improve things? What can we do to support researchers at all universities? And how we can work to make sure the system goes from strength to strength?’

“The amount of research we produce is relatively small in an international context. However, if you look at all of the criteria we use, despite its smallness, our research system is much greater than one would expect.”

But a problem is the small number of active researchers (about 5?000).

“Annually, these researchers produce around 30?000 outputs. They are very active but there aren’t enough people. We have 17?000 people who are employed to teach at universities. We have too many teachers and too few researchers in the university system. That’s one of the big problems,” he says.

According to him, the country needs a mental shift.

“The gap between the richest and poorest people can only be reduced by education. From research, we know there is only one way to do this – giving people knowledge.

“Tertiary education is the only way. So you can see why it is so important to me, and why I feel I can make a contribution.”

He is one of few white principals in the country.

But skin colour does not count for Van Jaarsveld. “My standard answer is always: ‘I never thought my biology defines me as a person.’ People must go and look at my record and what I’ve done then decide whether they think I can make a contribution to the university,” he says.

It seems UKZN noticed that and approached him because it believed he could make a valuable contribution – especially to the university’s research output.

The post came along somewhat unexpectedly. He did not even know about it at the beginning. He was one of three candidates along with Professor John Mubangizi, the deputy vice-chancellor at UKZN’s college for judicial and management studies; and Professor Renuka Vithal, the university’s deputy vice-chancellor for education.

When the board asked him to consider applying, he took time off to think it over. “I gave it plenty of thought and decided things here at the NRF are now on track. I also thought it might be time to get a little closer to the research front line and see how we can improve the research system of a university.”

So what does he bring to the campus?

“I feel I have at least one major project under my belt before I retire. You can accomplish a lot in 10 years – five years is perhaps a little too short. So it depends. If they are satisfied with my effort over five years, perhaps one can extend it by five years.”

He laughs before continuing.

“I hope I can help them strengthen their research field. What goes hand in hand with that is that we must continue driving the transformation agenda.

“People who practise science must be representative of the country. We must use all the talent we have to make sure the system is strong.

“We can’t use just a fraction of the talent in the country and think we will be competitive internationally.

“It’s important to me that our science workforce must be representative of our population when we look back one day in 20 years’ time.”

Another thing he would like to accomplish is making the university more service oriented.

He is also returning to his first passion: academia.

“Everything I have done here at the NRF was always in support of the academic world. Everything I’ve done in my career has been to promote our science system.

“A big part of the successful future in the country will depend on how we can promote our research culture and institutions to improve people’s lives in the end.

“That’s one of the most important contributions we can make. The academic world, I think, is the means to do that.”

The move to Durban is probably easier because their two children have already left home. Alet (21) is studying marketing at The Red and Yellow School in Cape Town and Barry (20) a BSc in zoology at the University of Pretoria.

The principal’s residence in Durban is in the heart of a small reserve, surrounded by nature – another of his passions.

And he will be able to continue enjoying his love of water polo.

“I’ll just have to learn more isiZulu,” he smiles.

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