Mbeki: Bond between state and higher education destroyed

Former president Thabo Mbeki. (David Harrison, M&G)

Former president Thabo Mbeki. (David Harrison, M&G)

Former president Thabo Mbeki says education was the centre of African development after colonialism, but that has changed.

It is the African political class’s doubt in universities’ crucial roles in the development of the continent that is holding universities back, former president Thabo Mbeki told a summit at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) on Thursday.

Mbeki said one of the major tasks that universities faced was convincing the “so-called political class in Africa that they are indeed situated at the centre of the African development agenda” and needed new investment to significantly improve their capacity to discharge their responsibilities.

He was the keynote speaker at the Times Higher Education (THE) Africa Universities Summit, which is to be held on Thursday and Friday at UJ. The summit – with the theme of “Moving Africa’s universities forward: building a shared global legacy”, aimed to give insight into what the THE’s press release called “best practice in the development of world-class teaching and research and shaping institutions’ strategic missions in an African and international context”.

Mbeki told the audience that it is only once this political class is “convinced about all this that it would be possible for our governments to lead the process, which would result in the substantially larger public funding that is required and without which many of the radical changes that need to be made will not see the light of day”.

He said when African countries gained their independence from colonialism, universities “were indeed situated at the centre of the African development agenda”.

But then the “healthy relationship between the state and the university was weakened and destroyed” by, in part, “the perception among the African ruling elite that universities were serving as centres of political opposition to this elite”.

“This led to the impoverishment and weakening as well as the marginalisation of the African University from both the State and the development agenda.”

This resulted in many African countries coming to consider expenditure on universities “as a burdensome but unavoidable cost rather than an absolutely necessary and beneficial investment”.

He said African countries needed a clear message from their political leadership.

“Perhaps the recognition of the need for an African knowledge society to achieve the Africa we want by 2063 is exactly the message we need to signal the commitment of our political leadership to provide the resources that will enable the African university to play its role, firmly situated at the centre of the Agenda 2063 development vision.”

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