Stun grenades, rubber bullets and tear gas have no place on a university campus. And protesting students have no place punching vice-chancellors. Yet somehow it has come to this in South Africa, where continuing unrest over tuition fees has frequently boiled over into violence.
Academic programmes at some of the country’s most prestigious universities have been derailed, while protesters demand free education and those charged with keeping universities open watch cross-eyed as inflation pushes their costs higher with no sign of a viable long-term solution.
As for the effect on those not involved in the demonstrations, one undergraduate at the University of the Witwatersrand said: “I am not sure free education is feasible. And I am worried about attacks…It’s inflicting fear in other students.”
In an analysis this week, we consider one of the less obvious – but gravely serious – consequences of the crisis, which has made it on to television screens across the world: the impression it gives of the future facing South African higher education.
As Martin Hall, emeritus professor at the University of Cape Town, wrote in a recent article for Times Higher Education, “universities are close to crippling deficits that must, with time, damage their feasibility. But the journey to any consensus is set to be long and difficult.”
This instability is likely to undermine South African universities’ ambitions to build on their position as the continent’s top-performing institutions by tempting back scholars who have pursued their academic careers abroad.
The importance of stability, investment and academic improvement in making this happen was discussed at last year’s THE Africa Universities Summit in Johannesburg, when Albert van Jaarsveld, vice-chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, said that institutions could not rely on goodwill alone. “The important thing is to create the kind of environments that allow people to come back in a way that supports career development and enhancement in a positive fashion.
“As long as there is a perception that circulation back to the African continent is somehow detracting from their career path, we are going to lose this fight,” he said.
The extent to which African researchers have looked for opportunities elsewhere is highlighted in a World Bank/Elsevier report from 2014, which found that 85 per cent of southern African researchers have published a journal article while outside the region.
This need not be a negative. The report points out that researcher mobility can be a good thing, with early career academics leaving the continent, particularly for graduate training, and then returning equipped with skills and international networks to pursue more successful research careers at home.
But it’s a battle at the best of times to convince a diaspora to return after they have enjoyed the milk and honey on offer in the most advanced university systems. Making the case for returning to a stricken system is harder still, and as van Jaarsveld said, it’s no use relying on goodwill alone.
The solution, according to Hall, is “a hybrid system of student – and university – funding, that combines fees with an extended and enhanced means-linked bursary and loan system”. But action is needed sooner rather than later because, as Hall says, South Africa’s current disarray is the worst of all scenarios.