The closing months of 2015 were marked by unprecedented student protests calling for both free tertiary education and the end to outsourcing of domestic and security workers within the university sector. It has become clear in 2016, as the #FeesMustFall movement continues and protests become angrier, South African universities are being re-imagined and altered. Undoubtedly, a change is necessary but the voice of post-graduate students in all of this seems to be mute.

Photo credit: barbourians via / CC BY-NC-SA

The truth is that university fees are out of reach for most South Africans. But, this piece is not intended to argue the merits or demerits of the current swell of student protests. It is becoming clear that no matter how these protests end, universities in South Africa are being forced to change. Professor Vuyisile Msila wrote an interesting opinion piece on the current wave of student protests and the need for the discussions around the social implications of symbols and knowledge systems. The main point that I got from his piece is that we still need to grapple with what higher education means at a societal level.

The media focus has weighed heavily on undergraduate fees, but that is just a tiny part of the equation. We are research leaders on our continent, but South Africans are powerfully affected by the state of international growth and global trends in research and education. With the global economy coming to a screeching halt and rapid digitization of knowledge, we haven’t really addressed how universities in South Africa can adapt and where post-graduates studies fit in addressing the challenges ahead.

We need to be asking — at least I know that I am – what is the purpose of being in a university or studying further, if it is not to help Africa meet its current challenges? Universities need to house innovation hubs, cross-disciplinary projects and overall be ahead of the developmental curve. Yet we are at a point where all of this could fall away if the change is not managed intentionally.

At the height of the protest, our department was warned that we have to be more financially prudent because of anticipated reductions in funding for non-critical projects. To be honest, I didn’t really feel the difference because my programme head has always been extremely cautious with funding. But, I wonder what the impact of the quality of tertiary education, at all levels, would be if appropriate funding couldn’t be found. Globally, there has been increasing pressure on the knowledge economy owing to increasingly scare funding. This has profound implications for African universities who are tasked with finding solutions to Africa’s various social and developmental challenges.

The university funding crisis also has implications with regards to talent rentention.          In European ,and American universities,the lack of appropriate funding has seen tenured positions become scarce. Similarly, South Africa faces an increasing risk that young graduates– particularly those who are black and/or female — would be co-opted in the university system without the prospect of getting a full time job. It is understood that you are likely to start your working career at a university in a contract or ad hoc position-which has a smaller pay package than that of full-time staff. What is clear, however, in the aftermath of the fees must fall, is that full-time opportunities are going to dry up and that teaching would likely be undertaken by staff from historically marginalised groups. This does not sound horrible at face value, but these “adjunct” lecturers will receive considerably less pay with little to no prospects of change. Such a system is running rampant in the USA, with devastating consequences for researchers. In South Africa too, brilliant academics of all persuasions would leave the universities for the private sector because of their inability to meet their basic needs.

Surely, we don’t want to simply repeat the mistakes being made by our international competitors. I leave this piece with two questions: What should the ‘new’ South African university look like? And, where do post-graduates fit in in creating the new academy?

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