Sub-Saharan Africa

  • Africa Analysis: A need to overhaul the humanities

    Linda Nordling

    12/03/15

Speed read

  • Africa has many students in the humanities, but the field faces marginalisation

  • Experts say the humanities in Africa’s higher education should be reinvigorated

  • An alliance with creative industries such as design could bolster the humanities

Teaching and research in the humanities in Africa’s universities need to be overhauled, writes Linda Nordling.
 
The humanities currently seem to sit with a bad rep in African higher education debates.

Policymakers often complain that there are too many people studying law, religion or business studies on the continent, while shunning subjects such as engineering, science or mathematics.
 
A 2009 report by the World Bank found university enrolment in Africa “still heavily biased in favour of liberal arts courses, with not enough science students, and even fewer in engineering and mathematics”. [1]
 
One African leader who has condemned this trend is President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, himself an erstwhile arts student. In August last year, he is reported to have told participants at the launch of a science laboratory at Uganda’s Ndejje University that such courses were “useless”.

“Policymakers often complain that there are too many people studying law, religion or business studies on the continent, while shunning subjects such as engineering, science or mathematics.”
 
Linda Nordling

 
“You find many of these people putting on big academic gowns but have no solutions to many of the country’s challenges,” he was quoted as saying by the Daily Monitor newspaper. 
Faced with such onslaughts, the African humanities need to rally — but to do so, they need to change fundamentally.
 
The ‘Mickey Mouse’ route
 
The discussion in Africa is reminiscent of one that took place about a decade ago in the United Kingdom regarding university courses that merely served to attract student numbers, but did not contribute useful skills to society.
 
According to Margaret Hodge, the UK’s higher education minister at the time, a ‘Mickey Mouse’ degree has content “not as rigorous as one would expect and where the degree itself may not have huge relevance in the labour market”. [2] Although Hodge did not name the academic programmes, it was generally believed that most included arts degrees such as media studies, philosophy or history.
 
Many British academics defended the courses, saying they were not only academically rigorous, but they also turned out employable graduates.
 
The criticism in Africa has similarly forced the continent’s arts and humanities communities on the defensive.
 
A call for action
 
The necessity of arts and humanities degrees in modern African universities is set out in a policy discussion paper submitted for the African Higher Education Summit taking place in Senegal this week (10-12 March).
 
The paper draws on a Forum on the Humanities in Africa, convened in South Africa in June last year by the African Humanities Program, an initiative supported by the US-based Carnegie Corporation of New York and administered by the American Council of Learned Societies.
 
The forum invited African academics to discuss the “marginalisation” of the humanities.
The paper says that subjects such as literature, history, languages, culture, philosophy and arts have been “deprioritised by policymakers and even some university officials”. [3]
 
It adds that without the humanities “no knowledge-led development strategy can succeed. To envision the future, we must understand the lessons of the past. To act in the present, we must be sensitive to current cultural complexities.”
 
Time for change
 
However, humanities courses in Africa need to change to become more relevant and useful, the discussion paper says.
 
Policymakers should improve the funding for universities across the board, with attention to the needs of the humanities, it says.
 
Universities need to set high standards for scholarship as well as promote its relevance to development and society, it adds.
 

“The arts and humanities need to show their value when combined with the subject areas that currently enjoy the policymakers’ attention, such as science and technology degrees.”
 
Linda Nordling

As for African humanities scholars themselves, they should curb “the culture and practice of consultancy” that many of their numbers engage in to supplement their academic wages.
 
Such practices, the paper says, have “undermined serious scholarship” and tend to increase as academics reach more senior posts.
 
Going further
 
While the recommendations made in the Forum on the Humanities in Africa’s discussion paper is a good start, I can think other actors that need to get involved in revitalising the subjects.
 
Firstly, creative industries such as design, music, fashion, film and software development need to be invited to shape university curriculums and create opportunities for internships and guest lectures.
 
These industries have the potential to make a serious contribution to countries’ economies as well as create jobs. Just look at Nigeria’s movie industry, which was worth US$5.1 billion in 2014. [4] When the movie industry was included in the country’s national accounts, Nigeria became the continent’s biggest economy overnight.
 
Secondly, the arts and humanities need to show their value when combined with the subject areas that currently enjoy the policymakers’ attention, such as science and technology degrees.
 
Engineering courses, in particular, should feature ample crossover with the humanities in order to produce the entrepreneurial graduates that African countries need.
 
Such a crossover need not be expensive. In fact, because few humanities subjects require pricy laboratories, it could be done on a shoestring budget, by involving the many creative Africans venturing into crossover careers in design, engineering, information technology or marketing.
 
Indeed, a little creativity could go a long way in reimagining arts and humanities degrees in Africa.

Linda Nordling, based in Cape Town, South Africa, specialises in African science policy, education and development. She was the founding editor of Research Africa and writes for SciDev.Net, Nature and others.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.