Universities are submitting very few creative outputs in African languages to DHET for credits

Published On: 14 July 2023|

At the recent meeting in June, of Universities South Africa’s Community of Practice for the teaching and learning of African Languages (CoPAL), the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) reached out for help. What was the issue? The DHET needed to understand why it receives so few submissions in African Languages in the implementation of the Policy on the Evaluation of Creative Outputs and Innovations Produced by South African Public Higher Education Institutions (2017), particularly in literary arts.

Operational since 2019, the Policy on the Evaluation of Creative Outputs and Innovations Produced by South African Public Higher Education Institutions credits universities for quality research outputs by academics whose work is based on practice and performance. It includes genres such as fiction writing, dance, film and television, and design. These credits operate in much the same way universities are rewarded with subsidies for publications in accredited journals. Both mechanisms aim to encourage research productivity.

Presentations by DHET officials

Dr Idah Makukule, the DHET’s Deputy Director: University Research Support and Policy Development, and Professor Mokgale Makgopa, chair of the 10-person advisory committee for the policy’s literary arts subfield, addressed the CoPAL meeting at Tshwane University of Technology on 20 June. The 40-strong gathering of CoPAL under the auspices of USAf, the representative association of South African public universities, meant the attendees represented academics at the coalface of African language practice activities across the university system.

“Let us share with you our frustration and perhaps we can come up with a solution,‘’ said Professor Makgopa (left). He said every time they put out a call, they receive submissions in English and Afrikaans but those in African languages are “extremely low’’. He shared some of the stats of what he referred to as ‘teething problems”.

Literary arts recognises creative non-fiction, novels, novellas, short stories, oral performance literature, and poetry.  The total number of submissions in this genre, in all South African languages, were:

  • 2019 – 11;
  • 2020 – 25;
  • 2021 – 18.

Based on universities’ websites, which he felt might not be 100% accurate, Professor Makgopa determined that 24 of the 26 public universities offer nine African languages. Yet literary arts submissions in these languages were limited to a handful, and in only three African languages.

‘’Where are the other languages?” he asked.  ‘’We want to understand: what are the challenges? We are here, not to accuse you, just to share the information. What could CoPAL do to improve this situation? “

A former Dean of the School of Human and Social Sciences at the University of Venda, Professor Makgopa said his 26 years at an institution of higher learning meant he understood the dynamics and challenges of supporting African languages. ‘’But when the department comes up with an initiative like this, supported by USAf, why can’t we do something? How can we work together in the upliftment of the status of African languages?’’

He wanted to know if the procedure to submit outputs was the problem. “How is the road? Is it a smooth road or is it filled with ups and downs? These are some of the things that we need to know, with the intention of addressing this shortfall. We need one another for the purposes of allowing these languages to grow and develop.’’

The ins and outs of the creative outputs policy

  • Institutions are credited with up to 10 units for publication, but creative outputs get up to two units;
  • The policy recognises and subsidises fine and visual arts; music; theatre, performance, and dance; design, film and television; and literary arts;
  • Each submission has to be accompanied by two peer review reports and must be signed off by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC) of Research;
  • Institutions upload documents via the portal: Research Outputs Submission System (ROSS);
  • The creative outputs must have been produced in the three years prior to being submitted;
  • Submissions are assessed for originality – whether the output contributes to fresh understanding or stylistic, thematic or conceptual innovation in the disciplines; relevance – whether the work demonstrates an intellectually and creatively informed response to the subject; and newness – whether the given work has never been accredited for subsidy before; and
  • the evaluation process is final and there is no process of appeal.

CoPAL’s response

Professor Nobuhle Hlongwa, CoPAL Chairperson and Dean and Head of the School of Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said she had not been expecting that type of presentation. To her CoPAL peers she said: “I know many of your colleagues are working hard in the literary space. And you do write novels, you write poetry collections.  The policy on creative outputs is new. Maybe colleagues are still grappling with understanding what it requires.”

The audience of African Languages practitioners including senior scholars, that engaged the DHET officials during the recent CoPAL meeting at the Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria.

Questions raised during the discussion

Question 1: Is the DHET recognising the work done in terms of dictionaries? If it is not one of those areas that are recognised, perhaps it will be recognised when the policy is revised? 

Question 2: Is children’s literature included as a creative input?’

Dr Makukule: “In terms of dictionaries, we haven’t thought about what they provide. We should mull it over. We haven’t done a policy review yet; we are in the process of doing it. This is something to take up as a consideration.  There have been multiple requests from the sector to consider translations. But children’s literature is something we haven’t touched on in terms of the criteria we look at.’’

Professor Makgopa: ‘’If, as CoPAL, you want to make some recommendations to include children’s literature and dictionaries, it’s fine. We’ve been debating a lot about translation, but we did not consider it.’’

Question 3: Is it correct that only certain publishers are recognised for writers to be credited for their fiction outputs?

Dr Makukule: “The policy is quite clear that we do not recognise or subsidise self-publication. There have been several requests to take self-publication into consideration as we go through the policy review process. So, it depends on what motivation the sector gives us for it to be subsidised as a creative research output. But we don’t have lists of publishing houses. Provided it’s gone through the peer review process, we will consider the novel, or poetry.”

Question 4: Can creative outputs be considered for National Research Foundation (NRF) ratings or is it only for subsidy purposes?

Professor Makgopa: ‘’It could be, depending on your area of specialisation.’’

Dr Makukule: “It’s something we are discussing, to formalise.’’

Question 5: Do colleagues get feedback about why submissions are not approved?

Dr Makukule: “We do give feedback to our institutions regarding the applications that we receive, about whether they are declined or awarded a unit. As you know, our communication has been quite slow at times. It’s something we do try to rectify. We go through a lot of processes to get something signed off, so it is an issue, but we do give detailed feedback. When the panel sits, they really scrutinise the submissions. Applicants can use the feedback to strengthen future applications.”

Question 6: Are you open for invitation to visit our institutions or to do online presentations on this policy?

Professor Makgopa: “Yes, we are available.’’

Question 7: Do you ever hold roadshows to share information on this policy? We do have people who qualify, but is the information being filtered through from the DHET to the institutions as it should be?

Dr Makukule: “What’s coming through suggests a misalignment in terms of the information I’ve shared about the policy.  That is alarming.  We did several national workshops when we were introducing the policy, and another one last year, where we gave an update on the interpretation of the policy, participation rate, and amendments we had undertaken.

“We had a massive institutional drive presenting on what needed to be submitted, the peer review process, the training with ROSS and what you need to upload. And we continuously communicate with our research offices, the tech transfer offices, about the implementation of innovation. There seems to be a communication gap at institutions.

“I send information directly to the Deputy Vice-Chancellors: Research offices, to let them know when the portal is open for submissions for creative outputs, and we allow a window of about eight months, because we know the peer review process is quite strenuous. There is, I think, miscommunication.  It seems this policy is unknown. It was a response to an outcry from the sector, to recognise creative outputs and publications, yet, now, there’s no participation.

“So, I apologise for assuming that people are aware.’’

Way forward

Professor Hlongwa said CoPAL had given its input. Possibly some aspect of the policy needed revision. Ultimately, the sector needed more information workshops.

Professor Makgopa reiterated that the literary arts subfield did not recognise biographies. Neither did they consider the conversion of masters and PhD theses into books as this was double dipping; the institution had already been credited for the research. ‘’The most important thing that you need to do, colleagues, is to read through the policy and the guidelines. And once you’ve read through them you can make some suggestions and recommendations about how the policy can be improved,” he said.

He also raised a compliance question. ‘’We cannot just suddenly deviate from the policy. We can only revise the policy, through your help and support, because you know what is happening at grassroots level. If you think certain aspects must be included in the policy, they will be discussed.’’

In summing up, Dr Makgopa conceded that all new initiatives have flaws that need to be improved over time.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.