South Africa's research output will be the biggest victim of student protests

The costs of student protests are far higher than imagined. Rogan Ward/Reuters

It will cost around R600 million to repair the damage caused by student protests across South Africa. That’s according to the country’s Minister of Higher Education and Training.

I’d suggest that this figure is merely the tip of the iceberg. The true cost of these protests is far higher. This cost can’t be measured in hard currency – yet. The higher education sector is being held to ransom and universities could lose the ability to do their core work: to teach and to conduct research.

This will have dire consequences for the entire country. South Africa is already struggling to produce enough skilled labour to meet demand. If universities cannot complete their academic years, as some fear, some students may miss out on the chance to graduate on time. They may choose to drop out entirely rather than trying to fund another expensive year of study.

Bright academics and postgraduates are likely to seek work or study opportunities elsewhere and major research projects could stumble as higher education’s crisis deepens.

Damaging the research machine

I have been an academic for more than 30 years. I have taught students; I still supervise postgraduates and I run a very successful research programme.

I have a deep understanding of the value of education and what it takes to establish a vibrant research culture at a university. I’m also keenly aware of what it takes to do internationally leading research in a developing world environment. I hold a research chair in Fungal Genomics. These chairs are designed to attract and retain research excellence at public universities. My research focuses on understanding tree pathogens, predominantly fungi which cause tree disease. I have trained almost 100 Masters and PhD students and currently supervise 10 post graduate students.

Such postgraduate students are the lifeblood of research programmes. The quality of research done in any country is hugely influenced by the quality of postgraduate students in these programmes. In recent years, more South African students in my research programme have chosen to stay in the country to carry out postgraduate research; they know that the quality of our research is internationally competitive and respected.

These local students are joined by postgraduates from elsewhere in the world. They are also drawn by South Africa’s globally competitive research culture.

International postgraduates are an important asset in South Africa’s bid to produce more scientific PhD holders in the coming years. The country’s department of science and technology has identified a need to graduate more PhD students.

The department has set a very ambitious target for universities to graduate 3000 Science and Technology PhD graduates by 2018. South Africa doesn’t have the academics to train this many PhDs. But research intensive universities have been increasing their supervisory capacity by attracting post doctoral students from around the world to help train postgraduates.

Will these post doctoral students and foreign postgraduates still come to South Africa if protests persist? Will local students choose to stay and study towards their PhDs – or will they look for university systems that are not rocked by disruptions?

The potential for brain drain

Research is a global activity. Top researchers in South Africa annually host leading researchers from elsewhere in the world. These research leaders interact with academics and graduate students. In this way South African researchers are inspired by the best in the world and will then go on to produce internationally leading research.

But why would these international guests come to campuses racked by protests? As I write this a number of seminars by overseas visitors at my own institution have been postponed and in some cases cancelled. South Africa is poorer for this.

Much of the research I’m referring to here is focused on the country’s own, often unique problems. If this research machine is compromised South Africa will have to “import” – at a significant cost – researchers from other countries to solve its problems.

Local academics, too, are unsettled by what’s happening. Many of my colleagues are very concerned about their futures. Some have told me they are looking actively for positions elsewhere. Young academics who’ve grown up and trained in South Africa could well look for opportunities elsewhere and, given the quality of education they’ve received, they will probably succeed.

Research programmes do not develop overnight

Much has been written about the value of research. For those who remained unconvinced, it’s useful to think of research as the equivalent of an insurance policy. In doing research you insure that a country and its people are able to understand and deal with future challenges.

A research programme is not something that appears overnight. It takes years to develop, nurture and grow. It often involves the life time endeavour of the researchers concerned. Running a research programme involves a commitment that is essentially 24 hours a day and 365 days of the year. A research programme cannot be switched off for a day, week or a month and then restarted where you left off.

Any breaks mean that you have to restart many activities, often from scratch. This results in delays in delivery and this is very problematic as research is most often done using grant or industrial funding. Granting agencies expect annual reports and that one delivers on what was promised. Industry funding often requires quarterly reporting and funding can be cut if the research outputs are not achieved.

The current student protests are already having a negative impact on research across South Africa. Some universities are suggesting that the academic year will have to be extended into 2017. If campuses are closed and post graduate students and lecturing staff told to go home, the cost to the research machine is incalculable – certainly far more than R600 million.

The Conversation

Brenda Wingfield receives funding from industry and government granting agencies to support her research. She is the DST-NRF SARChI research chair in Fungal Genomics.