The Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Stellenbosch University has helped secure a grant of R13.6 million from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for the newly developed Building Capacity for Early Career Humanities Scholars in Africa (BECHS-Africa) programme.
The three-year transnational programme will offer residency for 30 early career scholars in the humanities to enhance their research agenda. Scholars will be chosen from the institutions that make up the BECHS-Africa partnership: the University of Ghana, the American University in Cairo, Egypt, SU, and the Washington University in Saint Louis, USA, with the University of Ghana as the lead institution. Eight fellows will be chosen from Stellenbosch University.
The BECHS-Africa will provide avenues for early career scholars to spend an academic term of up to six months in a region of Africa other than their own, or in a global north institution. The programme is informed by research conducted in the United Kingdom by the British Academy and the Association of Commonwealth Universities in 2011. The study “noted that the years following the completion of a PhD are critical to the establishment of a successful research career, as it is during that phase that the skills and knowledge developed through postgraduate training are cemented".
The Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at SU, Prof Anthony Leysens, was involved in the formulation of the grant proposal. Others who worked on the proposal include Professors Samuel Kwame Offei and Samuel Agyei-Mensah from the University of Ghana; Professor Jean Allman of Washington University in Saint Louis; and Associate Professor Syed Maswood of the American University in Cairo.
“The opportunity for early career scholars in our faculty to spend a considerable amount of time at our partner institutions (made possible by teaching buy-out) and focus on their own research and under the supervision of a leading scholar is invaluable. South African academics will be exposed to an environment which will certainly shape their thinking and direct their academic career. Younger scholars are usually inundated with teaching, together with the need to be a productive researcher. This initiative enables them to focus, with support, and within a unique environment on their research," said Leysens.
He added that the faculty was also “committed to expanding its collaborations with universities on the continent and to participate in initiatives launched by other African universities". The BECHS-African programme, he said, fits in well with other established programmes for early career academics that faculty already participates in.
At present, SU belongs to networks like the Partnership for Africa's Next Generation of Academics (PANGeA), of which the University of Ghana is also a partner. PANGeA is a “collaborative network of leading African universities developing research capacity and confidence in bringing African expertise to Africa's challenges". SU is one of eight partners that belong to this network. It contributes to this partnership through the Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences based at the faculty.
The Graduate School itself focuses on strengthening and advancing doctoral training and scholarship on the African continent. It has enrolled more than 220 full-time PhD scholars from 18 sub-Saharan African countries since 2010. To date, 134 PhD candidates have graduated via the graduate school, with many junior academic staff returning to their institutions to take up research and academic positions. In this manner, the School contributes directly to stemming the brain drain of academics from the African continent.
In 2016, the PANGeA-Ed training and skills development programme was launched. It focuses on the development of research capacity in the arts, humanities and social sciences through research-based research and scholarship support on all the PANGeA campuses in Africa. A year later, the PANGeA Early Career Fellowship programme, which aims to identify academic leaders in the arts, humanities and social sciences in Africa, was established. It offers eight-week residencies at SU for 50 staff members within the PANGeA network over four years (2017 to 2020).
Leysens said that the BECHS-African programme will further expand on all the work done to capacitate early career academics through the PANGeA and the Graduate School by allowing scholars to combine the experiences they have gained while studying towards their doctoral degree; acquire new research skills that are essential to the successful further development of their academic career; and start building a wide range of networks that will only benefit their career development.
At the same time, he said, early career academics from other African institutions will benefit from exposure to the faculty's top-rated scholars.
“There is also the value-add opportunity for our own members of staff to spend time on the campuses of the other partners. At the same time, we will host fellows from our partners on this campus," said Leysens.
“My vision is for our faculty to embrace its African identity, to focus on the continent's challenges and opportunities and to increase our teaching and research partnerships with other African universities. This is an exciting opportunity for our younger colleagues to embrace this vision and to, at the same time, receive early career mentorship."