Director General of Higher Education and Training, Gwebs Qonde
Prof Ari Sitas
Honoured guests from South Africa and abroad
I’d like to welcome you all to this conference and to thank you for joining us to participate in charting a way forward to revitalise the study of the Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) in our universities. I’d specially like to welcome our international participants who have come from Zimbabwe, Uganda, Senegal, Russia, India and Brazil to assist us in our efforts.
I also want to thank the hundreds of academics who contributed to the meetings and debates which fed into the process of developing this important report under the leadership of Prof Ari Sitas and Dr Sarah Mosoetsa. Let me say from the start that I am very happy with the report, it has made wide-ranging, ambitious and bold recommendations which I believe begin to chart the way forward with regard to revitalising the humanities and social sciences in South African universities.
We expect this conference to be an important step along the road to revitalise rigorous theoretical and empirical research on the realities of our societies, the social, political and economic life of our people and their creativity. We need to stimulate debate based on a contestation of ideas, to get people thinking critically and imaginatively.
In the process we seek to break the hegemony of ideologies that primarily serve the interests of capital, reducing human beings into things, and of an unfair social system and an unjust world order. And we seek to bolster the efforts of those intellectuals who see freedom, equality and human development as the legitimate goals of progressive scholarship. And we also seek to strengthen the teaching of the HSS disciplines and to attract students to them. Ideally human and social sciences should be mainstreamed into all of post-school education, irrespective of the disciplines or professions being studied.
The Humanities and Social Sciences Charter report makes the point that there is a widespread perception of HSS as being in crisis, although the authors seem reluctant to accept this view completely and point out that there was never a ‘golden past in apartheid South Africa’s HSS to cling to, besides pockets of excellence and … critical scholarship’.
While I agree that we have no golden past to hanker after, I want to remind you that in those dark days of apartheid, progressive social sciences and humanities academics – Prof Sitas and others here – played an important role in shaping the collective consciousness of our students and our peoples’ organisations and emboldened them to stand against the apartheid regime. Their work exposed the apartheid pseudo-science that legitimated racial and gender inequalities and discrimination in our society.
They played a crucial role in delegitimising the ideologies which had long played a central role in racial oppression – both the relatively crude ideology of the apartheid regime and the more subtle liberal ideologies which had underpinned British colonial rule and the interests of large sections of big capital. Let’s not be afraid to recognise this important work and to take inspiration from those who sought to challenge orthodoxies and to identify with the struggles of those who were poor and oppressed.
Even in our country today there is a big debate in liberal media about a claimed (I emphasise ‘claimed’) threat to our Constitution. But a closer examination of this analysis it is patently one-sided, emphasising only rights without similar emphasis on responsibilities, especially the responsibility on the part of citizens to fight continuing inequalities in society and continued abuse of marginalised workers.
Similarly a closer examination of these debates will reveal that emphasis tends to be more on the checks and balances on government with no similar emphasis on socio-economic rights for the overwhelming majority of our people. Freedom, important as it is, without food, decent shelter and sustainable livelihoods is meaningless, as it often translates into freedom for the rich. These are matters that South African social science and humanities will have to open up for debate and emerge with concrete proposals on how to tackle poverty, unemployment and inequality in our country.
Another major challenge in our country is that the major means of communication (including media) still resides in the hands of the white minority in our country. There are not enough writers and analysts drawn from the ranks of the black population. The publishing industry and means of distribution of information are monopolised by a few monopolies in our country.
Community radios, television and newspapers remain marginalised and on the periphery, and many of them are being gobbled up by the major media conglomerates. Even the public broadcaster, despite its efforts in addressing these, but is severely constrained by commercial considerations and imperatives. Access to information, not just in law, but in reality, especially for the majority of our people is indispensable to a democratic society. So is the development of African indigenous languages an absolute necessity for an inclusive and democratic society.
These are some of the issues that progressive and developmental humanities and social sciences can help to address, apart from elevating them to being societal issues.
Whether or not we use the word ‘crisis’ to describe the current situation – and there is some important work taking place in the HSS disciplines – it is clear that, on the whole, HSS could and should be a lot stronger in order to play the role it could be playing in the development of our society, our economy and our intellectual life.
The decline in prominence of the social sciences and humanities in South African universities is not something that we can really dispute. Another report, the Academy of Sciences of South Africa (ASSAf) Consensus Study on the State of the Humanities in South Africa does call it a crisis and points to declining student enrolments, declining graduation rates, and decreasing funding for HSS. It also states that, HSS in institutions of higher learning are ‘in a state of intellectual stagnation and, singular innovations notwithstanding, has remained in this moribund condition for more than fifteen years.’
The ASSAf, bemoans that fact that ‘government policy in the post-apartheid period has systematically benefited Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics to the exclusion, and even detriment, of the Humanities disciplines’. This observation requires that I address the issue of the relationship of the HSS to the STEM disciplines.
As you know, the policy of the apartheid regime and its predecessors was to keep the level of education for blacks (and especially Africans) as low as possible, providing just as much education as was necessary to support the white supremacist system. The main purpose of education was to provide just enough knowledge to allow most Africans to function as unskilled (and later semi-skilled) labourers, some to work as teachers, ministers of religion and nurses or bantustan administrators.
Consequently the education provided did not place much emphasis on learning areas in the natural sciences. I needn’t repeat Dr Verwoerd’s infamous statement that the ‘Bantu child’ need not learn Mathematics. This policy had a devastating impact that we are still feeling today.
Not only did entire generations of African children suffer from deprivation, but most of today’s teachers suffered as well. Assessments of the subject knowledge of teachers show that many have a serious deficiency of mathematical and scientific knowledge. The fact that most children generally learn in a language that is not their home language – and is also the second or third language of their teachers – does not help either.
So, without belabouring the point, it should be fairly obvious why the South African government has placed great emphasis on the STEM subjects and on critical areas of skills shortage such as engineering, technology, the physical sciences and certain areas of business studies such as accounting. I agree with this emphasis which is actually not unique to South Africa as economies around the world become increasingly technologically dependent.
However, there is always a danger that too singular a focus on certain areas will lead to a neglect of other equally important areas. After all, apartheid did not exactly give great emphasis to developing great social scientists or artists, although the basic tools (for example, language and music) were slightly less disregarded than the STEM subjects. In any case STEM subjects themselves must be anchored by humanities and social sciences.
My suspicion that the humanities and social sciences were being neglected and becoming weaker was one of the main reasons that prompted me to approach Prof Ari Sitas about this and that led me to appoint the two-person task team of Prof Sitas and Dr Sarah Mosoetsa to look into how the social sciences can be strengthened. Another reason is my conviction that HSS disciplines have a crucial role to play in the development of our country by informing social policy, framing the systems of thought that shape our perceptions of the world, discovering and interpreting our past and our present, stimulating creativity and making widespread the tools necessary for informed debate about ourselves and our society. HSS must also help us to assert the importance of human life and happiness and that of our environment.
I am happy that the HSS Charter report aspires to an education system in which both the HSS and STEM disciplines are integrated and complement one another in the education of a complete person. Let us keep this ideal in mind as we move forward and find useful ways in which the knowledge from both sets of disciplines can contribute to solving complex problems which require interdisciplinary research collaboration.
The better understanding of HIV and AIDS and its impact on people and societies is one such area. Another is the study of the environment. There are obviously many more such challenges that will be faced more effectively by collaboration between academics in the STEM and HSS areas.
The current problems that we see in the humanities and social sciences in South Africa are not unique to this country. One only has to Google ‘Crisis in the Humanities’ and one comes up with 11.8 million hits, mainly about the developed countries. Funding for HSS research has been cut back and student enrolments have been decreasing.
No doubt this has been affected by the commercialisation of universities and the commodification of knowledge and the fact that the work of most HSS faculties is often not attractive to commercial interests. I am not sure to what extent this problem has affected other developing countries (about which we have less information) but perhaps we will learn more about this from our international guests at this conference.
In any case, I am convinced that any country that does not want its scholarship to be dominated completely by commercial interests must ensure that the state intervenes – materially and otherwise – to support the creation of knowledge that is important even when it is of no apparent or immediate economic value.
Much HSS research does fall into this category. But the study of HSS does have an economic value to the students who take HSS degrees. Those who belittle the HSS disciplines – and who have helped to harm their public perception – often say that HSS do not prepare students for the labour market. In fact no purely educational course actually produces people who are job ready on completion of their studies.
Professionals like engineers, medical doctors, accountants, lawyers and others need substantial, post-university, practical workplace experience in order to qualify. But, this issue aside, the assumption that HSS graduates are not taken up by the labour market also seems to be a fallacy.
The ASSAf study says that, and I quote, ‘The evidence on Humanities graduates shows clearly that virtually all Humanities graduates are employed, that the vast majority work for an employer while the rest are self-employed, and that there is a fair spread of graduate employment across the public and private sectors.’
Now let us come to the Humanities and Social Sciences Charter report and its recommendations. The report has made wide-ranging, ambitious and bold recommendations which I believe begin to chart the way forward with regard to revitalising the humanities and social sciences in SA universities. These recommendations have also been commented upon by members of the academic community and others in formal submissions to my department.
In my view the most important recommendation of the report is undoubtedly about the establishment of an Academy or Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences. I have accepted this recommendation and have already started to make concrete plans for the creation of a National Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences.
I plan to amend the Higher Education Act to provide for the establishment of such an Institute and an Amendment Bill has already been published for public comment. I am now pursuing an arrangement to secure funding for a pilot to establish such an institution. The pilot will establish an interim structure to explore and make recommendations of the best form, substance and structure for such an institution.
It will also map out the initial programme of work for the Institute. This interim structure will be established within weeks. I hope that the legislation will be finalised to establish a National Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences by the beginning of the financial year starting in April 2013. It will be funded by an allocation from the fiscus although it will be free – indeed encouraged – to raise additional resources from other sources. But it will not be allowed to become an institution that becomes dependent on bidding for tenders in the open market as this would only allow the market to drive its agenda.
As the report recommends, the National Institute will advise the government – particularly the Department of Higher Education and Training – and other stakeholders on issues affecting HSS in the country. The Institute will also focus on increasing the quantity and improving the quality of research in the country, particularly through expanding the output of post graduate students at honours, masters and PhD levels.
I expect that the Institute will establish virtual schools as suggested in the report, although the actual schools need not necessarily be the exact ones outlined by the report. These will have to be determined by the Board of the National Institute after consultation, wherever necessary, with the universities which will host the virtual schools.
The Board will examine the other recommendation of the report with regard to the National Institute and will determine its activities, depending on its budget and the interests and priorities of HSS in the country. Other activities or programmes to be considered will, I expect, arise from the deliberations and recommendations of this conference.
But the paradigm underpinning such work must be a developmental one. I believe that the National Institute should also be the central organising locus for the catalytic projects proposed by the report.
The important thing about these projects is that they should in fact be catalytic, spawning a variety of other research projects under a particular theme and promoting interaction among the researchers and the wider academic community. The report makes an excellent start in suggesting the themes for these projects.
This conference should help in the process of finally identifying the actual projects which the Board will consider and initiate.
The report recommends the establishment of what its calls an ‘African Renaissance’ programme which it is largely about the building of linkages and partnerships within the African continent and within ‘the mandates of (the) Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) and India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) agreements’. This is an excellent idea and I support it fully. Although we must continue to work with and benefitting from our relations with the developed countries, we really need to ensure that our relations with institutions in the developing nations are just as strong.
However, I must say that I have serious reservations about the name ‘African Renaissance’ for the programme. The Renaissance was a European phenomenon, very important in the history of Europe and indeed of the world.
However, I really think that taking its name for a project for African integration and development imposes a model which, from the start, could affect our thinking about our challenges and our programmes. In addition it could sub14 consciously have the effect of reducing our efforts to collaborate with institutions in developing nations outside of Africa – with those in the BRICS as well as others, be they in Vietnam, Indonesia, Cuba, Argentina, Venezuela or the non-African Middle East.
A number of other interventions have been suggested and are largely in line with the policy of my department and are being or will be given further attention. They are too numerous to deal with in any detail here. For some of them – i.e. those dealing with the National Research Foundation (NRF) – I will have to take up the issues up with the Minister of Science and Technology under whom the NRF falls.
Recommendations regarding non-discrimination against HSS student the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) will be taken up by my department with NSFAS. In addition, as recommended, I am committed to expanding funding for post-graduate studies in all areas, including the HSS disciplines.
An institute of this nature will have to work closely with the HSRC and a variety of other government and nongovernmental institutions in South Africa, the African continent, the South and globally, without at the same time losing its unique features and mandate or the contribution it can make in HSS in higher education.
What is it that seems distinct and unique about this initiative? Firstly it is about the consolidation of a charter on HSS, that could also contribute to the development of a vision for HSS in South Africa, the African continent and globally – possibly leading to a charter for our continent or even going beyond it. It is about strengthening the teaching of HSS from first year at university. It is also about creating research networks amongst universities, thus enabling weaker institutions to benefit from stronger ones, improving pass rates and throughputs.
This model can be replicated in other disciplines, including beyond our borders. It also seeks to decommodify HSS research work by ensuring that it is largely supported by government funds, whilst at the same time being autonomous in pursuance of its activities. It also seeks to deliberately foster a dialogue and complementarity between the natural sciences and HSS.
One of the ‘corrective interventions’ recommended by the report is particularly close to my heart. That is the idea of a first-year improvement project. The report tells us that ‘the real crisis point in our entire HSS system is at first-year level. The problems are many: large classes, understaffed programmes, poorly qualified staff and poorly run departments, high failure rates, poor resources, limited access to computer labs, unsupportive library systems.’
It is essential to improve the throughput rates in our universities and doing this is one of my chief priorities. The first year experience of student is particularly important in this regard. The issue, however, relates to all subject areas and not just to the humanities and social sciences.
A major recommendation of the report that I have not accepted is the idea of a National Centre for Lifelong Education and Educational Opportunities. It’s not that I believe that Lifelong Education is not important – in fact I believe it is very important. However, its relevance goes beyond the HSS disciplines and responsibility for it will be lodged in the proposed South African Institute for Vocational and Continuing Education and Training.
In conclusion, I would like to invite you all to contribute to the deliberations of this conference. I also look forward to listening to your ideas and your views. I will be here for today to participate in the deliberations of the conference and, although my government duties prevent me from being here tomorrow, I will get a verbal report over the weekend and will carefully read the full conference report in due course.
Issued by: Department of Higher Education and Training
29 Mar 2012