Ex Africa Semper Aliquid Novi: A Sermon (not for rats)

 By Thierry Luescher-Mamashela

Students, the university, and society

Last year I wrote an article for Studies in Higher Education in which I argued that the participation of students in university governance can be justified from so many angles: whether it be as university ‘stakeholder’ or a ‘constituency’, as ‘members of the academic community’, even as ‘consumers’ or ‘clients’ of higher education, or as ‘citizens’. Any of these notions, either by themselves or in combination, provide good reasons for student involvement in university decision-making.[1] In my studies of the way student participation at the University of Cape Town has changed since the period of ‘university democratization’ of the late 1960s and early 1970s, I found that the transition from seeing students as political ‘stakeholders’ in the university, to one where students are primarily seen as ‘clients’ or ‘consumers’ of higher education more recently, has been the cause of the many frustrations that student representatives experience in committees, senates, and university councils on a daily basis. Yet, what has apparently fallen by the wayside is the key rationale as to why participatory rights and involvement in formal decision-making in universities was originally extended to students almost fifty years ago.

In 1968, German philosopher Jurgen Habermas wrote a short essay entitled Die Universitaet in der Demokratie – Demokratisierung der Universitaet where he considered how the university ought to be transformed and governed in a democracy.[2] The broader political context of Habermas’ writing was, of course, the legacy of the devastating Second World War and the national tragedy that the atrocities of Nazi rule involved for a democratic postwar Germany; the imperative that this legacy involved was a fundamental democratic transformation of all institutions of society. Habermas’ writing was inspired also by the ‘68 student rebellions that spread across the Western world, from Warwick and LSE to Sorbonne, the Freie Universitaet, Columbia and Berkeley, and even to top universities in Africa such as Ibadan and Cape Town. For sure, the student rebellions were motivated by a multiplicity of ideological projects, cross-cutting national and even university-specific grievances. Yet, among the latter was a consistent student demand for democratic participation of students in the decision-making structures of universities. The question Habermas raised was how to consider this demand, and he did so by questioning the role of higher education in society, and that of the university in particular. Was it merely to train a ‘technical elite’, or did it have a broader democratic mandate to provide a discursive space for engagement, enlightenment, and emancipation? The answer is perhaps implied in the question.

Higher education and democracy: Africa and beyond

As if democracy was an accomplished project, the questions that Habermas and others raised have been set aside in the neoliberal quest for ‘efficiency’ and ‘effectiveness’ – measured, of course, in purely instrumental-technical terms – starting in the US and UK in the 1980s and from there spreading across the global university landscape. Relevant literature is abounding with these notions. Universal higher education and diploma mills emerged to accredit the ‘knowledge labourers’ for the rat race in the ‘new economy’. Rather than a critically constructive citizenry empowered with relevant high skills and ready to make an impact in economy and society, the new working class was adequately tuned to participate in the ‘knowledge economy’, while the centre of economic activity changed and a global system of finance and casino capitalism emerged. Only in the last four years has the discourse shifted – from globalization to ‘the crisis of late capitalism’ – and quickly a scapegoat was found: the managerial class and its excesses; being the most successful rats in the rat race.

I entitled this polemical piece – or sermon, if you like – ‘ex africa semper aliquid novi’, thereby drawing attention to the hope that you may gain something new, some inspiration perhaps, hybridized as it may be, from what comes out of Africa. What does Africa have to offer on a matter as specific as university governance and the role of students?

In a recent edition of University World News, Sir Peter Scott, a distinguished higher education expert, reviewed research currently being done on the contribution of higher education to development and democracy in Africa.[3] He noted with great insight that it was inspiring that in Africa, as in much of the developing world, the question of democratization continued to be debated. Where experiences of both local and international authoritarianism  – be that non-democratic rule by a single party, the military or a ‘Big Man’, or the outside imposition of structural adjustment and austerity programmes through IMF or World Bank – are still part of the popular memory, the extension of the democratic space remains a key topic. Scott’s review is worth quoting at length:

“In the West the links between higher education and citizenship are typically addressed largely in rhetorical terms – at any rate, in the United States where great play is made of the role of a college education in forming the civic values of the republic; in Europe they are barely addressed at all.

There are two reasons for this contrast between the vitality and urgency of these issues in South Africa (and Africa at large) and the passivity and formality with which the same issues are addressed in many developed countries.

The first is that in these countries democracy is regarded as a completed project, a settled achievement of the 19th century finally consolidated after 1945 (or, in a case of frustrated development, after 1989 in central and eastern Europe). In Africa democracy remains a contested project, unfinished and incomplete.

In this respect the African perspective is much closer to global realities. Its emphasis on unfinished – and, therefore, urgent – business is in sharp contrast to the conservatism and complacency of the West.

But the second reason is that in the advanced West, much of which has been under the rule of right-wing parties for the past three decades, the role of higher education as an engine of market growth has taken priority over its potential for emancipation, whether of communities or of individuals. The decline of affirmative action in the United States, and the shallow and brittle political support for ‘widening participation’ in the United Kingdom, are examples of this retreat from democratic engagement in (and for) the academy.

In South Africa in particular the role played by higher education in promoting or frustrating participatory democracy, within the context of social equity and justice, remains a real – and raw – issue.” [4]

It is precisely the understanding that the democratization of state and society are unfinished, ongoing and urgent business, always and everywhere, and that higher education is not merely an engine for economic growth and competitiveness but that higher education provides a set of social institutions designed for socio-economic and socio-political emancipation as part of an ongoing enlightenment project, that prompted in Africa – but must do so fruitfully beyond this context – a serious re-consideration and analysis of the potential of universities to act as places for the development of democratic citizenship and more specifically, of how they would take on such role. This challenge was taken up by the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa (HERANA) by means of a study of students’ political engagement on and off university campuses in Africa.

HERANA: The University as a democratizing social institution?

In the course of 2008 to 2012, HERANA conducted three studies as part of its democracy research which altogether issued in mixed results as to the contribution of higher education to democracy in Africa. While the first two focused on mass publics and members of parliaments, it was the third set of studies that issued in the most promising results. Student surveys had been conducted at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and University of Nairobi in Kenya – all countries with a unique political history that embarked on a fundamental democratic renewal in the 1990s – which found that there were indeed various ways in which these universities offered a potential ‘training ground for democratic citizenship’ for students. It is on these conclusions that I want to reflect briefly in the remainder of this article in the hope that it will bring some inspiration to you.[5]

The university as political hothouse

The surveys conducted at the three African universities showed that the vast majority of students clearly understand what democracy is, and is not, and that the majority of students prefer democracy as a system by which political decisions should be taken over other forms of rule. Moreover, students’ perception of the performance of government in their respective national contexts is consistently more critical than that of the public at large. These critical citizens have been forged, firstly, by better access to news information, and, secondly, by the multiple opportunities for independent organisation and discussion that university education and student life provide to discuss politics. Students, it was found, discuss politics far more frequently than youth not in higher education or the general public, even though the same students are actually not more interested in public affairs. It is rather that the conditions provided by these universities stimulate a political hothouse effect.

Among the theoretical starting points of the HERANA student surveys was the proposition to investigate the potential of a student leadership pathway to democratic citizenship. Against a multi-level, multi-sector conception of governance, involving a notion of university governance as a sub-sector and sub-level of national governance more broadly, the idea was proposed that the political values and behaviours acquired in the context of student leadership would be transferred into the context of national politics as corresponding political attitudes and behaviours (and vice versa). The notion of pathways to democratic citizenship, and particularly the proposition of a student leadership pathway, involves a broad conception of citizenship education and citizenship development that encompasses the ideological, pedagogical as well as political orientations and practices in educational institutions overall. In this respect, citizenship education at educational institutions can be said to have two distinct learning outcomes as Norwegian academic, Ivar Bleiklie notes succinctly:

“First, students need to learn how democracy works – through participation in student organisations and university decision-making bodies, and by developing a conceptual understanding of democracy. Second, they need to learn that democracy works by experiencing that they can influence events and their own living conditions through participation”.[6]

It is by pursuing these learning outcomes in specific education programmes as well as in classrooms, student governance, and in co-curricular student development programmes that universities have the potential to contribute to citizenship education and deepening democratisation.[7]

The university as training ground for citizenship

While the space for students’ democratic deliberation at university has undoubtedly been shrinking in recent decades due to increasing academic pressures put on students, overloaded curricula, and a growing culture of academic performativity, universities continue to provide ample opportunity for students to participate and take leadership at various levels of university life, in student residences and halls, at department, faculty and institutional levels, and in various voluntary student associations and other collective political activities to a degree of political involvement far above that offered to non-students.

However, the evidence does not substantiate the claim that there is indeed a student leadership pathway to democracy. Under the conditions of the universities we investigated, it turned out that participation in formal student representation did not significantly correlate with more democratic attitudes. And quite shockingly, ordinary students considered student leaders the single most corrupt group of individuals on campus – potentially more corrupt than university managers, academics, or fellow students in general. Clearly something was going wrong here. Are perhaps these student leaders not exposed to how democracy works’ andthat democracy works’ in their experience of university governance?

In addition, the surveys provided valuable insights into the political attitudes and behaviours of students; valuable in that they provide clues of the relevant dimensions of a university as a training ground in citizenship. For instance we found that students ‘specialise’ in certain types of political participation already at university, and that this specialisation replicates in political life beyond the university. Thus, while those in formal student leadership positions tend to also take up official leadership positions in civil society off campus, e.g. in NGOs, voluntary associations, political parties and trade unions; the student activists, who tend to organise and participate in protest action and demonstrations, are also more typically found among the radical activists in civil society.

By means of conclusion: A way forward

There are two ways in which the findings of the student surveys can be engaged with. On the one hand, we can accept that there are limitations to the role of the university; that a university has a particular ‘academic core’ constitutive of teaching, learning and research activity, and that these activities are to be designed instrumentally to satisfy the needs of the economy in general and, as far as student learning is concerned, the labour market in particular. This is the ‘narrow’ option and it harbours the danger of creating a technocratic, social, economic and political elite, who will think and act as narrowly as their education: a class that will too readily acquiesce to a subversion of the democratic space for instrumental reasons. The result is that we may find ourselves in a world where society has to serve the dictates of the economy, rather than a world where the economy serves the needs of society…. Does that sound familiar?

The other option is still open to us, but it will require more work. First we need to agree that it is not money or the economy, but humans who are at the centre of social life – of production and reproduction. We need to re-centre and re-focus on humanity. We are not rats. Secondly, we must agree that social institutions are there to serve society as a collective of individuals, families and partnerships, communities and neighbourhoods. In this view, the education system as a whole and university education in particular has to serve society as a whole, not just the ‘market’, the economy in general and the labour market in particular. Lastly, we will need to ensure that the university in general, and the way it is governed, critically reflects, and critically reflects on, the social and political norms in society in such a way as to enhance its good, bring light, wisdom and knowledge. Stepping out of mediocrity into excellence – even in university governance by instituting deliberative, democratic practices. May thus student participation in university governance become a place where students indeed learn how democracy works and that democracy works (in Bleiklie’s terms). Therefore, let us critically engage with the social reality that confronts us. As Frantz Fanon once said: “Each generation must discover its mission, fulfil it or betray it, in relative opacity”.[8]

[1] Luescher-Mamashela, T.M. 2012. Student involvement in university decision-making: Good reasons, a new lens? Available online in revised version in Studies in Higher Education. See iFirst copy at http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2011.625496

[2] Habermas, J. 1971 [1967]. The University in a Democracy: Democratization of the University. In: Toward a Rational Society: Student Protest, Science, and Politics. J.J. Shapiro. Trans., London: Heinemann.

[3] Scott, P. 2011. “An African take on internationalisation”. University World News Africa, 2011(3), 5 November 2011. Available at http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20111123213643957

[4] Ibid.

[5] Luescher-Mamashela, T.M. with S. Kiiru, R. Mattes, A. Mwollo-ntallima, N. Ng’ethe and M. Romo. 2011. The University in Africa and Democratic Citizenship: Hothouse or Training Ground? HERANA Higher Education and Democracy Research Report. Wynberg: Centre for Higher Education Transformation (CHET). Available at: http://www.chet.org.za/books/university-africa-and-democratic-citizenship-hothouse-or-training-ground

[6] Bleiklie, I. 2001. Educating for Citizenship. Report submitted to the Working Party ‘Universities as Sites of Citizenship’ of the Council of Europe’s Higher Education and Research Committee (CC-HER). (Strasbourg: Council of Europe).

[7] In this respect, the Student Governance Surveys shares certain conceptualisations and aims with the earlier Universities as Sites of Citizenship and Civic Responsibility project of the Council of Europe.

[8] Fanon, F. 1990 [1961]. The Wretched of the Earth. London: Penguin Books. p. 166

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