Damage to research may outweigh property damage at SA varsities

DANICA CHARLES

On 27 September, Universities South Africa (USA) shared its concern about the damage to academic programmes and infrastructure by student protesters.

These repercussions are becoming increasingly clear and are supported by Prof. Brenda Wingfield, a member of the Academy of Science of South Africa and Professor of Genetics at the University of Pretoria. Prof. Wingfield published an article on Conversation Africa, titled “South Africa’s research output will be the biggest victim of student protests”. In her article, she explained that the Department of Education and Training’s estimated figure of R600 million in damages caused by student protests “is merely the tip of the iceberg”.

 USA previously stated in September that “damage sustained by the university sector in the last year due to student protests is estimated to have exceeded the R600 million mark.” This figure, which was initially in the range of R350 million earlier this year, has doubled since April. Prof. Wingfield said that the “true cost of these protests is far higher” and went on to describe the university sector as “being held ransom”.

Prof. Wingfield refers to postgraduate students as “the lifeblood of research programmes”. According to her, there are many students who have chosen to stay in South Africa to carry out postgraduate research and who are then joined by international postgraduates who help train South African postgraduates. International postgraduates are therefore an asset in producing PhD holders in South Africa. The Department of Science and Technology has set the target of 3000 Science and Technology PhD graduates by 2018, which is why it is important for international post-doctoral students to come to South Africa. Prof. Wingfield suggests that foreign postgraduates will not continue to come to South Africa if protests persist and that local students may then choose to leave the country and study elsewhere, in search for a system that is “not rocked by disruptions”.

She further explained that top researchers cannot continue to host international leading researchers who normally visit South Africa annually. These researchers come to interact with graduate students which inspires “international leading research”. This could result in researchers “having to be “imported” to solve problems, generating additional funding costs. Furthermore, research programmes that have had to take a break because of the disruptions and are likely needed to be restarted “from scratch”. Not only will this create a delay in producing research, but it would also mean that progress reports cannot be complied, therefore grants need to be cut, generating more loss.

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