University of the Witwatersrand Statistics Department

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University of the Witwatersrand Statistics Department

University of the Witwatersrand Statistics and Actuarial Science Department

University of the Witwatersrand Statistics Department – See Details Below:


The Department of Statistics at the University of the Witwatersrand was founded in 1957, with Professor John Kerrich as its first head. John Kerrich had achieved a measure of fame for his coin spinning and turn experiments conducted while interned in Denmark during World War II, which he recorded in his monograph entitled: “An Experimental Introduction to the Theory of Probability”.

While still a member of the Department of Mathematics, John Kerrich had attended a meeting at the University on 28 October 1953, together with 12 other statisticians, at which the South African Statistical Association was founded. Professor Kerrich subsequently spent three terms as President of the Association and was a member of the Executive continuously until 1969.

Two persons who were subsequently to make their mark internationally, Herbert Sichel and Danie Krige, both completed their Masters’s degrees under his supervision.

While the teaching of Mathematical Statistics (which, in common with most South African universities, was started in the second year of study, after students had completed a year of Mathematics) was the main focus of the new Department of Statistics, service teaching, particularly to commerce students, always played an important part and ensured the Department s viability.

The early sixties saw the introduction of an Honours course in Mathematical Statistics, initially on a part-time basis. In 1969 Doug Hawkins became the Department s first PhD graduate. During the seventies, Statistics was amalgamated with Applied Mathematics and Computer Science into a joint department.

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It was during this period that Mathematical Statistics was introduced into the first-year curriculum, one of the main reasons being to provide more visibility for the subject and to counter the competition for students from the new discipline of Computer Science.

The teaching of Operations Research was also introduced at the Honours level during this period, as a collaborative venture between statisticians and applied mathematicians. In addition to commerce, service courses in Statistics were now being offered to students in engineering and the social and biological sciences.

However, the management of the joint department became too unwieldy and in the early eighties, it was split up into its three constituent parts. Shortly afterwards the opportunity offered by Actuarial Science was taken up by the Department.

At that time the life assurance industry in South Africa was experiencing great difficulty in recruiting and retaining actuarial staff. The University of Cape Town was already providing tuition in actuarial science, but recruiting students and actuaries from Cape Town was difficult for the Johannesburg offices.

Five life assurance companies in Johannesburg cooperated to jointly provide finance to encourage Wits to start and continue an actuarial programme. Thus Wits was able, with that finance, to seek and appoint an actuary to initiate a course in actuarial science.

It is now becoming possible for students to obtain an exemption from some of the examinations of the London Institute of Actuaries and of the Edinburgh Faculty of Actuaries by passing corresponding tests set by the University.

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After a modest start, in which some courses were offered for exemption purposes, Caspar Greef, a qualified actuary was appointed as the first Director of Actuarial Studies in the Department and a three-year degree course in Actuarial Science was developed.

A good symbiotic relationship between Statistics and Actuarial Science was ensured by the requirement that students had to complete at least two years of Mathematical Statistics in order to graduate in Actuarial Science. There has been strong growth in this area and in 1989 the Department was re-named Statistics and Actuarial Science and the Chair of Actuarial Science was established.

The support that was given by the five life offices has been important from a number of points of view, such as for example, the bursaries they provide to potential students, and their involvement with the department in encouraging and channelling research.

The initial five sponsors have now grown to eleven. To this day a steering committee with representatives from the industry continues to keep a watchful eye on the development and running of the actuarial course. The course became an immediate success as student numbers grew quickly and soon overtook the number of students at UCT.

The Department continued to grow during the nineties and into the twenty-first century. An honours course was introduced during the 90s to allow students to obtain exemptions from some of the later parts of the Faculty and Institute of Actuaries exams and to foster a research ethic in the students.

At the turn of the century, the department was instrumental in establishing and developing South African fellowship examinations for the Faculty and Institute of Actuaries, and Wits has become the only South African university to provide education for students writing these exams.

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These courses are run at Masters’s level but may be read for a Postgraduate Diploma in Actuarial Science, or for occasional students.

Recent years have also seen strong growth in research students, both at the master’s and doctoral levels, especially as students from the rest of Africa realise the opportunity of studying at world-class South African universities at a fraction of the cost of doing so in Europe or America.

With the recent rationalisation at Wits, which resulted in a number of departments being amalgamated into Schools, the Department managed to change its designation without any change in its structure. The staff complement currently stands at about 20 full-time academics and a number of part-timers. It has four actuaries on its staff, six actuaries providing sessional lectures and a further eight involved in external examinations.

Since Professor Kerrich, the following persons have served as Heads: Doug Hawkins, Albert Boyd, Caspar Greeff, Paul Fatti, Anthony Asher, Jacky Galpin and Peter Fridjhon with Professor Stephen Jurisich being the current Head of the School.

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