The National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS) was founded in 2013 against a backdrop of a decline in teaching and research quality in the social sciences and humanities. It was the result of a special project of the department of higher education and training and its mandate was to advance and co-ordinate scholarship, research and ethical practice in the fields of the humanities and social sciences within, and through, existing public universities.
According to Dr Nthabiseng Motsemme, NIHSS academic scholarship director: “Since inception, the NIHSS has provided scholarships to more than 600 doctoral candidates and plans to produce a further 300 doctoral graduates by 2020. We are proud to have made significant inroads in the support and enhancement of education for many South Africans.”
The organisation recently held its Fourth Annual National Doctoral Conference (ANDC) gala dinner to celebrate the graduation of 50 new PhD fellows. This is the second cohort of doctoral graduates and it cements the ongoing success of the organisation and its continued commitment to changing the face of the higher education system. The quality of the graduates, and their rising numbers, is testament to the NIHSS remaining on track to strengthen a student-centred culture while addressing the inequalities that remain in the system.
Humanities Dean of Fort Hare University, Professor Baba Tshotsho, said: “People with doctoral degrees are considered a viable national resource to address challenges. Doctoral education is the business of identifying the gaps, asking questions and trying to provide solutions to some of the questions.”
Tshotsho believes that graduates make a significant difference to the country and contribute to the world of knowledge. This is a view shared by chief executive of the NIHSS, Professor Sarah Mosoetsa. She emphasises that the organisation is not just a funding body, but an intellectual hub that helps to define and shape the future of the humanities and social sciences. It also continues the debate that surges around the transformation imperative of the higher education curriculum and the need to reflect on the humanities and social sciences scholarships that are taught in South African universities. For Mosoetsa, the curriculum needs to become more inclusive, focusing on African intellectual traditions and languages while simultaneously rethinking and cultivating African epistemologies.
Reigniting African languages
Within this conversation lies another aspect — that of language. Professor Grace Khunou, a mentor of the NIHSS, echoed the same sentiment about the value and importance of learning and writing in a person’s mother tongue. She shared: “Two years ago, a doctoral proposal was written in isiZulu and it sent much-needed shock waves through the education system.” She points to the need to reignite African languages in the education sector as this could potentially reignite the nation. Today, more and more scholars are embracing their mother tongues and this movement is further supported by the NIHSS’s Shut Up and Write intervention.
Initiatives such as these are integral to the success of the goals of the NIHSS and to furthering the vision of the National Development Plan (NDP). The latter is focused on producing highly skilled and qualified individuals to meet the needs of the economy by 2030. An increase in the percentage of PhD graduates is a significant step towards achieving this goal, especially in light of the fact that South Africa must increase the percentage of PhD-qualified staff in the higher education sector to 75%. Currently this number sits at around 34%. The NDP is committed to producing more than 100 doctoral graduates per million people. The NIHSS has already made significant inroads into this total by producing more than 50 graduates in 2018 and has a goal to produce 300 by 2020.
Alongside its Shut Up and Write initiative, the NIHSS has also invested in the Catalytic Projects and Humanities Hubs — research-based programmes that focus on catalysing new avenues for humanities and social sciences scholarships. These hubs assist in, and promote, the development of research in the humanities and social sciences and are undertaken by establishing a network of researchers across the university system in South Africa. The goal is to support coherent collaborative research programmes that involve researchers in study areas that have been approved, alongside a myriad other benefits and opportunities.
HSS making transformative relevance concrete
The NIHSS ANDC conference was held over two days, on October 31 and November 1. It addressed key themes that resonate across the country and the education sector — the growing need for the humanities and social sciences, and their impact on making transformative relevance concrete. The conference also examined the topics of creating academies of inclusion, spear-heading curriculum reform as well as promoting research and development through trans-disciplinary interactions.
For two days, the conference was also a platform for second- and third-year PhD students to present their abstracts to a room of more than 200 fellow PhD scholars. The students came from 19 different universities across the country, and the winning abstracts were announced at the event.
The awards ceremony saw many of the graduates speak of their inspiration and provide insight into the system, the future and their roles in changing South Africa. One graduate said: “We do not need to be affirmed. We need to be creative, authentic, and generate our own excellence. That is what the NIHSS is asking of us. The time is for us to challenge ourselves to be human. Not a white human, a black human or a brown human, but a human. We want to thank the NIHSS for opening up opportunities that were previously denied to us.”
A moving, inspiration and powerful event, the NIHSS ANDC showcased the value of investing in people and recognising inclusivity and diversity of the South African higher education sector. The introduction of Encounters was another innovation introduced at this year’s conference. This platform is designed for published authors such as Jolyn Phillips, author of Tjieng Tjang Tjerries & Other Stories, Bhekizizwe Peterson, co-editor of Sol Plaatje’s Native Life in South Africa: Past and Present, and Nomkhosi Xulu-Gama, author of Hostels in South Africa: Spaces of Perplexity to present their work, as it is playing a fundamental role in shaping the humanities and social sciences curriculum.
The NIHSS reaffirmed its mandate to define a post-apartheid trajectory of scholarships that are cognisant of the country’s immediate and long-term developmental requirements as a key society in Africa. The keynote, presentations and scholarship presentations underscored the values that cement the foundations of the NIHSS and the work that it does; co-operation, communities, social responsibility, equity, and transformative relevance. While the students may have experienced highs and lows as they journeyed towards their goals, the NIHSS provided them with the structure and support they required to make their dreams into a powerful reality.
As one student concluded: “Many of us are the first in our families to obtain our degrees. Education is the only way we can break the vicious cycle of poverty in our families and communities and our next task is ensuring we are not the last to attend universities. We need to encourage others and let them believe their dreams are valid. The NIHSS is a huge gift to many of us who did not have the ways and means to get through education.”