Groundbreaking study on Humanities crisis in South Africa

5 October 2011, 08:19


Urgent and decisive action from Government to arrest the poor state of the Humanities in South Africa is called for in a consensus study of the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf).

The report, entitled Consensus Study on the Future of the Humanities in South Africa: Status, prospects and strategies, declares the Humanities to be in a state of crisis which is reflected in the alarming decline in student numbers, falling graduation rates, and decreasing government funding.

Post-apartheid government focus on developing skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics has benefited these disciplines to the detriment and neglect of the Humanities disciplines.

This first-ever report into the Humanities in South Africa urges the establishment of a statutory Council for the Humanities to advise Government on improving the status of the Humanities and provides invaluable detail about the challenges and opportunities in building on the existing pools of excellence in the Humanities in the country.

In many parts of the world concern has been expressed about the diminishing role that the Humanities are playing in the knowledge chain. These worries have pointed specifically to the weakening place of the Humanities within the academy, and, more generally, a deepening disregard of the Humanities in society.

In a number of countries these concerns have led to initiatives and investigations into the Humanities, with recommendations on ways to both defend and to rebuild them. In similar vein, ASSAf undertook this investigation into the crisis in the Humanities.

The decline of the Humanities has many causes that include government policy and funding, institutional choices and decision-making, school guidance and counselling, as well as parental and student preferences. The weight of scholarship in the Humanities in South Africa lacks international status and standing, with most of the published work appearing in local journals and most of these local publications in non-accredited publication sources.

Scholarship in the Humanities still strongly reflects the racial inequalities in knowledge production in the national science system, with all but one (the field of Education) of the Humanities fields falling well below 20% of total output being contributions by black scholars — despite marginal gains over the previous decades.

The single most important threat to the growth of an intellectually vibrant scholarship in the Humanities is the problem of an ageing academic and research cohort, a factor that must be read alongside the evidence of a decline in doctoral graduates in the Humanities. The low proportion of academic staff with doctorates means that the institutional capacity to reproduce and replace high-level scholars and scholarship in the Humanities remains compromised into the near future.

This Consensus Study of the state of the Humanities in South Africa makes ten recommendations.

The review and refining of government funding allocations to the Humanities with funds earmarked for areas such as African languages, Philosophy, History and the Creative and Performing Arts is one of the key recommendations.

It calls on the Government to commit to a White Paper on the Humanities that establishes in the public mind, and in Government policy, a renewed emphasis on the Humanities, and its full integration into national science policy.  Funding needs to be restructured for advanced degrees (doctorates in particular) through national funding agencies, such as the National Research Foundation, that enables full-time study for top candidates in the Humanities who make the choice of academic careers.

The establishment of prestigious Research Chairs and Centres of Excellence in the Humanities should be accelerated by appointing leading scholars to head these initiatives.

The report should be used as a guideline for policy-makers to take concrete action to improve the circumstances faced by the Humanities, not only in South Africa, but also across the world.

The report was developed and guided to conclusion by a Study Panel of experts under the leadership of Professor Jonathan Jansen and Professor Peter Vale.

Funding for the work of the panel was provided by the Ford Foundation, Oppenheimer Memorial Trust and the Department of Higher Education and Training.