Death of humanities will mean ‘the dissolution of society’

There is a crisis in the humanities. Many balk at the word “crisis” but there is no better way to describe the state of affairs. As the Assaf report, “State of the Humanities in South Africa”, shows, using substantial empirical evidence and analysis, the humanities in South Africa are characterised by the following six features.

  • Declining student enrolment: Enrolments of students in the public higher education system increased on average 2.6% every year from 1996 to 2008, while enrolments in the humanities decreased annually by 2%; the share of the humanities’ total headcount enrolment dropped from 46% in 1996 to 27% in 2008; the full-time equivalent (FTE) share fell from 51% in 1996 to 34% in 2008; and graduates have decreased by an average of 1% a year since 1996. This compares with growths of 4.6% a year in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) disciplines and 10.9% in business and management science.
  • Falling graduation rates: The average cohort output rate for all undergraduates in the humanities is below 50%; the successful completion of courses is even worse at graduate level, especially with regard to PhD students where the total dropout rate is 53%. In other words, a vital cog in the generation of a knowledge economy is being ground to a halt by reduced financial support and skyrocketing student/staff ratios.
  • Decreasing government funding: The humanities are the only sector to have had a decrease in block grant government funding over the period 1996 to 2008 (by 13%); the overall proportion of higher education income that comes from the government has declined steadily, from 49% of total income in 2000 to 40% in 2008, with a marked increase in universities’ use of their “private income”, a clear indication of the fact that they are being forced to make a business out of education, to commodify a public service.
  • Human resource stagnation: The proportion of academic staff with PhDs is very small in relation to the total headcount of academics — 4?000 out of nearly 12?000 academics — with the humanities faring the worst, and the overall figure is staggeringly low as compared not only with the United States and Europe but also with Brazil and India. Moreover, between 2004 and 2008 master’s graduates in the humanities decreased by 16% and today only 1% of all humanities students are PhD students, again well below the international average. The same is true of student/staff ratios — the number of students per academic is unsustainably high, in some cases much more than double the national benchmark, and in all cases at least triple the internationally accepted benchmark.
  • Research output: The majority of scholarship in the humanities lacks international status and standing, with most of the published work appearing in local, often non-ISI accredited journals; and this research output strongly reflects the racial inequalities in knowledge production in South Africa — black scholars, despite marginal gains over the past two decades, contribute well below 20% of total output. Both facts speak to the continued effects of apartheid’s parochial, inward-looking and racially distorted education system, but also to the fact that not enough has been done since to overcome racial inequalities and to make humanities research in South Africa globally competitive. To replace existing human resource and research expertise, let alone improve and expand it, we need more support, not more pressure, from the government. The problem of the ageing academic and research workforce speaks volumes for a reality that currently does the opposite.
  • Support of Stem disciplines to the detriment of the humanities: Although there is little doubt that the Stem sectors in higher education deserve the support they are receiving, especially in line with national imperatives for development, until now this has been done to the detriment of the humanities. The organisation, funding and administration of the national science initiative have been based on a strong natural science model, white papers give policy pre-eminence to science disciplines, naming of government departments and other funding councils, and the distribution and organisation of the research chair initiatives all highlight the ways in which the Stem disciplines are systematically privileged above the humanities. This is an unsustainable and dangerous model: a society that repeatedly undermines the humanities will not only eventually preside over its death as a vibrant and important locus of research and innovation, but will also be a society that presides over its own dissolution. As many studies the world over have shown, a healthy humanities sector is necessary for a healthy society and, in extremis, its very preservation.

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