SOUTH AFRICA: Action on humanities urgent - reports

Two separate reports, both released last week and authored by teams of leading South African academics, have called for urgent action to promote the value of the humanities and arrest their post-apartheid decline, evidenced by decreasing student numbers, falling graduation rates and inadequate funding.

The first of these, the Report on the Charter on Humanities and Social Sciences, was received last Thursday by South African Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande who commissioned the report in August last year, and for which he appointed a task team led by University of Cape Town sociologist, dramatist and writer Professor Ari Sitas (pictured).

Sitas told University World News last week that among the team's many significant findings was the fact that "managerial systems have trumped good education and scholarship" and that the pressure for increasing postgraduate success has shifted resources away from good quality teaching at undergraduate level, leading to a drop in standards.

Sitas said it was also evident that the higher education system was diversifying "at an enormous speed", causing the weak to get weaker.

Among the task team's six key recommendations - forged on the back of fact-finding missions to all 23 of South Africa's higher education institutions, and discussions with around 1,500 individual stakeholders - is the formation of an Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences to enhance research and ethical practice and to advise government departments and stakeholders on issues affecting human and social sciences in South Africa.

Sitas told University World News that in South Africa, where the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) already exists, the new debate would be: one academy for all, or two or more.

"The point about an Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences is more about what it does as opposed to what it is," he said. "On that, the charter is clear, outlining a range of activities that would dynamise scholarship, research and delivery at an unprecedented scale."

On the important matter of funding, the report recommends a review of the national funding formula for universities and the reward system for research productivity. It also proposes the splitting of the National Research Foundation into two entities, each serving the sciences and humanities separately so as to "avoid the reduction of the reward structure to a formula suitable only for natural scientific excellence".

Sitas said these and other recommendations are being discussed at the levels of deans and vice-chancellors and by the relevant government departments and ministers. The funding formula is under review by a committee chaired by South African businessman Cyril Ramaphosa.

The charter is out for public comment until the end of September, said Sitas. "There will be changes; how extensive depends on the balance between vision, will and reason."

Among the task team's other recommendations is the establishment of an African Renaissance programme and national Centre for Lifelong Education. Six 'catalytic' projects focused on areas such as early South African history, indigenous languages and popular education traditions, have also been proposed, along with the formation of five 'humanities hubs' throughout the country to serve as centres of research and documentation.

The charter report's handover came one day before the Academy of Science of South Africa released its own Consensus Study on the Future of the Humanities in South Africa: Status, prospects and strategies, described in its foreword as "the first ever report on the humanities in South Africa".

The consensus study declares the humanities to be stuck in 15-year-long state of "intellectual stagnation" and urges the formation of a statutory Council for the Humanities to advise government on improving the status of the humanities.

Other recommendations include the review of government funding allocations to the humanities, the restructuring of funding for advanced degrees through agencies such as the National Research Foundation and the acceleration of the establishment of prestigious research chairs and centres of excellence.

Peter Vale, the University of Johannesburg's professor of humanities and co-chair along with University of Free State Rector Jonathan Jansen of the 12-person panel of experts that produced the ASSAf report, was also a member of the local reference group for the minister's charter report task team.

Vale said if the "coincidental" timing of the reports reflected a mounting concern over the current state of humanities in the country, he welcomed such concern. "It's been long in coming", he said.

He said the two reports "spoke to each other" and shared similar concerns. "We believe there is strength in both," he said. ASSAf will be now putting together a small group to look at both reports, study areas of overlap and consider how best to deal with recommendations, he added. Other national initiatives concerned with resuscitating the humanities were also underway, such as the formation of the Association of Humanities Deans.

According to Vale, one of the biggest challenges is the public perception that humanities-related courses are soft options, and ultimately of limited value to a society in thrall to what he has elsewhere described as the "ideology of innovation and technology".

The consensus study notes that the South African policy landscape and that of many OECD countries reflects the influences of globally influential conceptualisations of science policy and higher education policy.

These policies ascribe the humanities "a secondary role and status in the technology-driven understandings of innovation, accompanied by shrinking funding and support, an ambivalent integration into the policies and structures of the prevailing 'national system of innovation' and its associated Research and Development frameworks, and an uncertain future in the academy and in R&D."

The study identifies an ageing academic and research workforce as the single most important threat to the future growth of the humanities.

Other key findings are that the weight of scholarship in the national field lacks international status and that scholarship still reflects the racial inequalities in knowledge production, with all but one of the humanities fields (education) falling well below 20% of the total output contributions on the part of black scholars.

The ASSAf study also finds that although nominal funding for the humanities increased by almost 90% from 1996 to 2008, it decreased in real terms by 13% in the same period. While headcount enrolments in the system increased on average by 2.6% each year from 1996 to 2008, enrolments in the humanities (excluding education) decreased from 273,000 to 215,000 in the same 13-year period - an average annual decline of 2%.

But the good news is that virtually all humanities graduates are employed, putting paid to the misconception that arts and social science graduates are not readily employable.

On the tenacious dichotomy between the arts and sciences, famously highlighted by British novelist CP Snow in his "Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution" lecture back in the late 1950s, Vale said it was arrogant to try to set "the two cultures" against each other because both "hang together in fundamental ways".

"One can't make progress without the other," he said. "Take AIDS as an example; it is both a medical and a social issue. We need to understand the interface between both science and society in order to meet our challenges."