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How my journey to a PhD in genetics convinced me that fees mustn’t fall

Scenes like these may drive young people away from academic careers. Kim Ludbrook/EPA

It’s been 17 years since I embarked on my journey to becoming an academic. Academia seemed to be an exciting but simultaneously stable space.

Globally, this perception is changing. Academia is no longer as popular a career choice as it was a few decades ago. In South Africa, the situation is exacerbated by uncertainty around funding and ongoing student protests.

In recent days, I have reflected on the #FeesMustFall protest action in relation to my own tertiary education journey and the challenges my colleagues and I face as young academics at a South African university.

Reflecting on my own personal journey over almost two decades to become an academic in a country that graduates very few PhDs, I find myself at odds with the demands of the students. I believe that higher education is a privilege, not a right, and that the protesters’ demands are misplaced. South Africa has a great many challenges when it comes to education: in my view the areas which need the greatest intervention are primary and secondary schools.

A long journey

I was born of South African Indian descent and come from a middle class family. We were far from poor, but university fees – as is true for most South Africans – were out of reach. I always wanted to keep studying after high school, and to become a lecturer one day, but knew this would be an expensive path.

I qualified for funding under the government-run National Student Financial Aid Scheme and enrolled for an undergraduate degree in the biological sciences – genetics – in 1999.

I worked part-time throughout my studies. I maintained good grades, so I continued to receive funding, first through loans and later through bursaries and scholarships.

Come 2013, my long held dream was realised: I graduated with a PhD in Genetics. This is a rare commodity. South Africa produces very few doctoral graduates compared to, for example, Brazil. These graduates often go on to work in universities, which is crucial: young blood can bring fresh new ideas to teaching and research.

South Africa knows this. The Department of Higher Education and Training offers research develop grants as an incentive for young academics. The country’s National Research Foundation has a special rating category for academics younger than 35. This aims to boost academics’ research profiles and their productivity.

These strategic measures attempt to acknowledge the importance of retaining talented academics to become the next generation’s professors.

So there I was, one step further on my path. I was Dr Naidoo. But the hardest part wasn’t behind me: it was still to come.

A cloud of debt

Once you’ve secured that all-important PhD, there’s no guarantee of a lecturing post. And such a post is crucial if a young academic is to really start building a successful research and teaching career. My journey continued positively: I was appointed as an academic at the University of Pretoria in 2015 and currently lecture a first year module in Molecular and Cellular Biology.

I teach around 1,500 undergraduates and coordinate the Genetics Honours postgraduate programme. I pride myself on being a dedicated, passionate lecturer and mentor.

But there’s a cloud hanging over me as I try to focus on conducting and publishing research as well as juggling the demands of teaching, advising and marking: my student debt.

Student loan debt adds extra pressure on young academics.

Repaying my student loan debt is an obligation I take seriously. It’s a struggle, but it’s my responsibility. By repaying my loan, I’m putting money back into a pool for future deserving students. And while doing all of this, I’m watching protesting students insist that historical debt should be cleared and that higher education should be free for all.

As someone who incurred substantial debt to reach this point, and who is now paying back her education, I disagree.

Right or privilege?

It is wishful thinking to believe that tertiary education is a right. In fact, it’s a privilege. In his 2014 welcome address to new students, North West University Vice Chancellor Dr Theuns Eloff echoed this unpopular view.

Quality basic education – pre-primary, primary and secondary schooling – is the real right. If this is delivered, school leavers can all approach universities and funding bodies on an equal footing. Those who are deserving and whose results merit financial aid can then be given priority.

Universities are already facing major budget crunches. Without fees, their coffers will empty faster. This brings several risks: job losses, cutting back subjects or closing departments, and a general dip in quality.

It will also push some young researchers and lectures away from the academy. How can young academics have a positive outlook when our very jobs may be in jeopardy? Why would potential professors pursue a career in spaces that don’t value quality? Some are already choosing the private sector. Others may follow.

More room for dialogue

One of the problems is that, in the current climate, there’s little room for academics to be forthright in their beliefs. Those who call openly for the protests to end and for the academic year to continue are reviled by protesting students and their own colleagues.

Are the rights that allow us to access our workplaces less important than the rights of those who want free education? It certainly seems so. For that matter, what of the rights of those students who want to complete their academic year? I have received many pleas from my Honours cohort for reassurance that we will complete the 2016 academic year. Many of my colleagues and I are fully committed to this, but it is a constantly changing dynamic.

I will no longer be the silent majority in South Africa’s higher education crisis. I want to be part of a highly successful and internationally recognised institution. I want to stand on the shoulders of giants and leave my own legacy for future academics – not drive them away from institutions that need their passion and skills.

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