Scholars call on HE summit to ‘reinvigorate’ humanities

Academics from across Africa and the world have described the “parlous” state of the humanities and submitted recommendations for their reinvigoration to policy-makers attending the major African Higher Education Summit in Senegal from 10-12 March. Among other things the academics have called for higher quality doctoral education, the participation of scholars in national debates and an end to funding and promotion discrimination.

The “Recommendations for Reinvigorating the Humanities in Africa” were submitted by the Forum on the Humanities in Africa, of the African Humanities Programme at South Africa’s distance learning University of South Africa, UNISA.

The document was released last December, and flowed from a forum convened on 7 June 2014 by the African Humanities Programme, an initiative supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and administered by the American Council of Learned Societies, to prepare recommendations for the summit.

It points out that the African Higher Education Summit, hosted by the government of Senegal and convened by the non-profit TrustAfrica under the theme “Revitalising Higher Education for Africa’s Future”, hopes to secure the political will of African governments and build a movement of like-minded institutions to transform African higher education.


The call is signed by 39 scholars, many of them leading academics at top universities, from numerous African countries – Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda – as well as from the United States.

One of them is Dr Omano Edigheji, director of the higher education programme at TrustAfrica and lead organiser of the upcoming summit in Dakar.

The humanities in Africa, the academics conclude, are in a parlous state.

“Studies of literature, history, languages, cultures, philosophy, the arts and other humanities subjects have been deprioritised by policy-makers and even by some university officials. The humanities consistently appear at the bottom of any list of national goals, if indeed they appear at all.

“It is clear that the marginalisation of the humanities must be remedied, because no knowledge-led development strategy can succeed without a solid core of humanistic understanding and humane values. To envision the future, we must understand the lessons of the past. To act in the present, we must be sensitive to current cultural complexities.

“Reinvigorating the humanities, then, is a necessary first step for inspiring innovation in all fields of endeavor critical to development, such as the prudent, ethical management of natural resources and civic dialogue in the public sphere.”

The academics recommend the following:
  • • Value the concrete contributions of history, languages, culture, the arts, and other humanities disciplines as an essential component of a comprehensive system of higher education for the betterment of the nation and continent.
  • • Ensure meeting the goals of higher education through robust funding, with attention to needs of humanities scholars, students, departments and institutes.
  • • Set high standards for doctoral education, focusing as much on quality as on numbers, not discriminating against humanities doctoral candidates, supervisors and departmental mentors.
  • • Recognise the value of research to the nation and its centrality to a vibrant higher education system, and include the production of new knowledge through humanities research in funding programmes.
  • • Actively encourage participation in national policy debates by humanities scholars, along with those in other disciplines.
  • • Require that higher education institutions make decisions on promotions and funding for research and travel based on performance and merit, without discriminating against humanities scholars.
  • • Ensure that laws affecting intellectual property encourage knowledge access and dissemination, and that policies encourage maximum visibility of local scholarship – for example, support for national repositories – incorporating a focus on humanities scholarship in all initiatives.
The forum identified several fields of action – proper working conditions for academics, strengthening PhD programmes, improving mentorship, nurturing research and teaching, curtailing consultancy work, disseminating new knowledge, and participation in the public sphere – and called for support from governments, universities, foundations and NGOs.

“While stakeholders can set broad goals and back them with financial incentives, and institutions can provide the framework for efforts to re-calibrate practices, success depends on effective, concerted action by humanities academics,” the document says.

“It is the commitment of individuals, working singly and within networks and voluntary associations, which will innovate and re-shape the academic culture.

Proper working conditions

Stakeholders, the academics believe, “must move decisively to redress the global inequality of conditions of work".

“African academics cannot compete on an equal footing with counterparts in other parts of the world as long as power outages, weak accessibility of internet service, inadequate library facilities, and sub-par dormitories continue to handicap African higher education.”

While these hardships affect all disciplines, universities and policy-makers should ensure that the needs of humanities scholars are not neglected, including in research grants.

“The critically important goal of increasing the number of PhDs should not be reduced to chasing after numerical targets. The objective is to increase the number of high quality PhDs,” the document says.

There is a need to set standards for curricula, training and dissertation research and writing, and external funding should be designed to incentivise structural reform, improve practices and reward success.

Strengthening PhD programmes

The document calls for a review of PhD training and adoption of comprehensive training that moves beyond the predominant practice of the PhD student working almost exclusively with one supervisor to produce a dissertation.

Comprehensive training may include coursework that goes further than disciplinary subjects to address how to learn, good study and research habits, training in research methods, workshops in academic writing and book preparation, language training and broad reading.

PhD candidates need to be exposed to continental and worldwide scholarship, travel grants provided to researchers pursuing comparative studies, and time release for sabbaticals should be augmented. Leave time could be made more productive through residencies for writing outside the home university.

The document also calls for invigorating undergraduate – and school – humanities curricula to spark the desire to pursue research in the humanities.

Improving mentorship

The scholars say that the master-apprentice relationship, deeply embedded in academic culture, has been weakened in African universities because senior academics feel pressed to prepare publications for promotion or to take paid consultancies.

“Mentorship needs to return to the centre of the academic enterprise. It should not be the exclusive province of the dissertation supervisor, but should embrace wider circles of senior scholars as well as peers. Reconfiguring mentorship will support new practices in PhD training and bring benefits to mentors as well as to their mentees.”

High mentoring standards should be established along with diverse sources of advice, benefits to advisers underscored, retired scholars and the African diaspora engaged, and collegial seminars developed that go beyond mentoring to provide, for instance, ideas and writing support.

A culture of research and teaching

The document argues for the creation of networks of collaboration, and for carefully targeted incentives in the form of prizes for best practices or travel grants for conferences, including for PhD candidates and early career academics.

It calls for PhD candidates to be actively engaged and to cooperate with peers in working groups, for Skype and new text-sharing media to continue relationships made at conferences and workshops, and for academic mobility across institutions and borders to be promoted for scholars of all ranks.

“This will enable cross-fertilisation of ideas, and a sharing of norms and standards, energising efforts at reform.”

Curtailing consultancies

“African academics are deeply committed to the social value of scholarship and teaching. They want to contribute meaningfully to national development goals,” says the document. But “a pervasive consultancy culture has undermined serious scholarship and, in extreme cases, has even violated ethical standards.

“As professors are promoted to senior positions, their rate of academic publication seems to fall, while the number of their paid consultancies seems to rise. Mentoring and other services to the academic community look much less attractive than consulting, because they pay much less, if anything at all.”

The document calls on international stakeholders and governments to reaffirm the core value of basic and applied research within universities “by ensuring respectable remuneration and establishing national research councils that do not discriminate against the humanities.

“Meager university salaries and lack of research support make paid consultancies outside the university all but irresistible.”

Further, there was a need for external financial support for collaborative groups and voluntary associations, and for clear university policies setting limits on the time staff can devote to paid non-academic work.

Disseminating new knowledge

“Publishers and journals in Africa struggle to gain recognition in the international marketplace of ideas (and on the world commercial book market),” the document points out, and authors who publish in African journals are rarely cited outside the continent.

“For this reason, authors are urged by their universities, and by their own career ambitions, to publish in world venues for greater visibility and prestige. This impoverishes the pool of high quality submissions to African publications, making them even less citable.”

It urges African scholars to cite one another, especially in international publications, and academics from elsewhere to cite African scholars. African academics should also use online journals, blogs, websites and other electronic media to make their scholarship more widely known.

A major proposal is for a comprehensive and constantly updated online repository for new work to be created, with an editorial and technology infrastructure. It could publish and store dissertations, conference presentations and working papers.

Participating in the public sphere

While not every scholar can be a Wole Soyinka, the document says, “every scholar should be concerned about the level and accuracy of historical knowledge in public debate, about the quality and integrity of political rhetoric in the media, and about the civility of public discourse”.

Higher education institutions should make their websites more informative about staff, their scholarship and its potential relevance to development goals. Scholars should not structure research to satisfy public tastes, but at least some of the findings and an exploration of their implications could be delivered via the media.

Also: “Scholars may wish to develop relationships with NGOs for public forums and other academic-public partnerships. This needs to be done carefully, because paid consultancies are one form of such a relationship.”