Research funding and a return of students to laboratories and studios were central to Professor Sue Harrison’s message during the online special assembly hosted by Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng on 14 May. Harrison is Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Internationalisation at the University of Cape Town (UCT).
“These certainly are challenging times, but it is very inspiring to be a part, and in places the driver, of new initiatives and innovations that will take us to a better place post-COVID-19,” Harrison said.
But despite COVID-19-linked disruptions to UCT’s academic programme, “significant volumes” of academic writing and desktop research were being achieved “where it can because many of our academics are completely immersed in online teaching and the additional demands of home life”, said Harrison.
She commended UCT’s researchers for “their amazing contributions” to COVID-19 research, through the university’s COVID-19 Research Task Team.
The present challenges were also shaping UCT’s view of its role in future research.
“Our researchers are really responding to the many issues that will need to be addressed in our new world,” she said. “This moment is a critical one to think through the key research foci for the future – and the impact of UCT’s research.”
But the university would need to work aggressively to maintain healthy levels of research funding to sustain this, she said.
Besides securing research funding, it was also critical to secure funding to cover lockdown delays in postgrad projects, especially where postgraduates have not been able to lab, studio and field work. Around one-third of UCT postgraduates are funded from external “soft funded” sources, beyond the funding agencies who fund another third or more.
“We are in discussion with big funders to find solutions.”
“We are in discussions with big funders to find solutions, but we’re encouraging students on National Research Foundation [NRF] funding to apply now for extension funding.”
Her immediate foci will be, first, the research contracts UCT has signed with external entities, particularly monitoring the ramifications of delayed research delivery “and all its consequences” and on supporting students, postdoctoral researchers and soft-funded researchers.
“We have a task team working on understanding and mitigating the consequences on our research enterprise, focusing on externally funded research in general and soft-funded researchers in particular.”
Those teams linked to research – administration, the technical teams and academics – are all working remotely except for a small team of critical COVID researchers and those attached to several projects where the risk to the patients involved in the studies far outweighed COVID-19 risks.
“We have a small team across the university maintaining critical facilities. And we have a fully resourced virtual library, thanks to library staff for the additional online resources available through negotiations with libraries worldwide.”
Although undergraduate and taught postgraduate programmes have moved online, some programmes have not, for example, the performing arts and those that require practical work in schools, clinics or laboratories. Harrison said UCT was planning a safe and responsible return for these students, in line with national regulations.
“The institutional planning is under way. As soon as the framework is bedded down, we will begin the planning at the granular level.
“Many are missing the knowledge commons and the daily interactions with fellow researchers.”
“In our postgrad research programmes, laboratory- or studio-based students have had to rethink and reorder their work to be able to complete desktop research. All students have had to cope with working in a different environment – many are missing the knowledge commons and the daily interactions with fellow researchers.”
Harrison said there was a postgraduate online task team in place to handle aspects specific to postgraduate study.
Where students were concerned about being able to register for follow-on degrees, the university would adapt where necessary to keep the academic programme in place, allowing students to progress.
“We have considered the need for alterations in submission dates and the fact that some students who should have finished by year end will not. Similarly, we are in discussion with the NRF on awarding of bursaries for postgraduates if results are out later.”
She thanked those teams that had been instrumental in keeping the postgraduate programmes and students on track: the Postgraduate Funding Office; the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT); Information and Communication Technology Services (ICTS) for laptop delivery; the Research Office through the Postgraduate Hub; and the International Academic Programmes Office (IAPO).
Beyond the academic aspect, Harrison said many postgraduate students were in tough situations due to living conditions, connectivity, life demands, etc and in these cases course convenors or supervisors had access to the UCT CARES referral network, via their faculty contact people.
“The UCT CARES referral system works very well and works for both postgraduate and undergraduate students.”
Harrison urged supervisors to maintain close communication with their students.
“Not all our students are managing to stay as productive as they would wish.”
Not business as usual
While a return to research in laboratories and studios is top of mind for many students and researchers, the phased return will follow strict, university-wide protocols.
“We must plan this holistically within government regulations, following a socially responsible approach. We are entering a key planning phase on this now, although dates are not yet clear. We will do this with a task team enabling us to link across faculties to the granular, environment-specific level.
“We see laboratories all around the world grappling with this, as are we. It will not be business as usual and we will develop new norms. But I am sure we will embrace it, because disruptions are where innovation comes from.”
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COVID-19 is a global pandemic that caused President Cyril Ramaphosa to declare a national disaster in South Africa on 15 March 2020 and to implement a national lockdown from 26 March 2020.
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