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Unisa online - The future of the humanities and social sciences

From left: Prof Alan Weinberg (Emeritus Professor of English, Department of Research), Prof Mamokgethi Setati (Vice-Principal: Research and Innovation), Prof Peter Vale (Professor of Humanities, University of Johannesburg), Prof Shamil Jeppie (Associate Professor of Historical Studies, Institute for Humanities in Africa, University of Cape Town) and Prof Shireen Hassim (Professor of Political Studies, Assistant Dean of Research, University of Witwatersrand)

Is there still a future for the humanities and social sciences? This burning question, highlighted in two reports: the Academy of Science for South Africa (ASSAf) Consensus Study on the State of the Humanities, and the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) Report on the Charter for Humanities was the basis for a Research and Innovation symposium on 1 August 2012.

Dr Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education, commissioned a report with the view to developing a charter for the Humanities and Social Sciences. Published in 2011, it raises a number of critical areas of concern about the general state of these fields, suggests what could be done to improve the situation and signals what is anticipated to be done at a national level. Also bringing these fields into sharp scrutiny, the ASSAf report refers to this as a crisis and points to the declining student enrolments, declining graduation rates and decrease in funding.

In light of these reports, eminent scholars, Prof Peter Vale, Professor of Humanities at the University of Johannesburg; Prof Shireen Hassim, Professor of Political Studies, Assistant Dean of Research, University of Witwatersrand; and Prof Shamil Jeppie, Associate Professor of Historical Studies, Institute for Humanities in Africa, University of Cape Town, raised critical concerns and suggested ways forward.

Whilst there may be differing views on whether the humanities and social sciences are in crisis or not, Prof Mamokgethi Setati, Vice-Principal: Research and Innovation, urged all to pay attention as there are just too many reports and publications highlighting it as a problem.

With conversations on the humanities and social sciences much richer now than five years ago, Prof Vale was eager to see a meeting of the two documents that bridge concerns. “There is an agreement that if not a crisis, something still needs to be done to address the systematic disorder in the Humanities. Our voices must be loud because this is too important to be left with politicians.”

So how does this crisis look at the chalkface? According to Prof Hassim there are consequences of a massification of higher education, there are inadequate support systems, poorly prepared students, postgraduate expansion without adjustments of the system and the issue of funding, funding and funding. She believes there is no ‘magic bullet’ for this crisis to be reversed. A lot of it comes down to funding postgraduate students, creating teaching assistant positions that will link to a tutorial and lecturing system and creating dedicated funds for fieldwork and other research expenses to be applied for on a competitive basis.

With the belief that this shouldn’t be a silo South African issue, Prof Jeppies’ plea was for a deeper look at what this country is doing in relation to the rest of the continent. “I don’t think we need to be Afrocentrics, but it does mean making concerted efforts,” he stressed. He encouraged bold decisions in empowering students with languages, for example. “We can’t leave it up to and wait on government initiatives. We’re going to have to do this through civic initiatives and it has to come from the bottom up.”

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