Time to end academia's ivory trade
South African and African higher education institutions must redefine themselves away from being “ivory towers”, and with greater urgency pursue a new democratisation mission of their societies, given the spectacular failure of political leadership in the region to entrench genuine democracy.
The challenge for South Africa and African countries is how to mould democratic and ethically based models of citizenships in countries and regions where the political cultures are markedly undemocratic, even if governing movements, leaders and individual citizens may often profess embracing democracy and its values.
Education is not only a vehicle for the transmission of values, but also reproduces values. At places of higher education citizens interact, socialise and learn together.
This should make South African and African universities ideal places to foster new common democratic values – and to actively defend these democratic values.
A basic requirement for higher education institutions to play their democraticisation role is for these institutions to be autonomous, while at the same time have a mutually beneficial relationship with the state, society and other stakeholders.
To use sociologist Peter Evans’s concept of “embedded autonomy”, universities must be autonomous and have close ties with society, the state and other stakeholders, in order to be in tune with the problems of society, and responsive enough to deal with the problems.
This approach will ensure higher education institutions become more relevant to their societies. In such “embedded autonomy”, universities can agree with social partners on common objectives, but can also question the purpose and actions of partners.
Higher education institutions in the region must propose that laws are introduced in all countries that entrench the institutional independence of higher education institutions.
To follow docilely or remain aloof
Often universities in the region have either docilely followed what politicians said their resource output should be or, to prove their independence, have stayed aloof (often not only from governments, but also from society itself).
When universities start to question undemocratic societal routines, leadership behaviours and values, it is likely that they will come under attack from politicians and entrenched interests.
But by adopting the notion of “embedded autonomy” – independent, yet deeply embedded in society – institutions will be better insulated from such attacks.
Our universities must reject what the American scholar of race, Cornel West, has termed “authenticity” politics, whereby every issue is reduced to “racial reasoning”. In this discourse there is a demand for black or African solidarity behind leaders and causes at all costs, no matter how dubious and corrupt how much deadly harm they cause other blacks.
Undemocratic and corrupt African leaders often appeal to black “authenticity”, which demands a closing of ranks behind black leaders only because they are black. West argues rightly that we must “replace racial reasoning with moral reasoning, to understand the black-freedom struggle not as an affair of skin pigmentation and racial phenotype but rather as a matter of ethical principles and wise politics”.
Universities must proactively transmit democratic values, rather than just producing individuals with degrees of competency. Higher education will have to produce critical minds, and graduates who have the ability to self-reflect and self-criticise.
Higher education institutions play a crucial fostering role in creating an informed cadre of citizens who can play an active role in civil life.
Higher education can be “a catalyst of changed individual and collective self-understandings” (as philosopher and educationist Josef Jarab has argued), and can take the lead in questioning “received values” that are undemocratic, in Amartya Sen’s phrasing.
Universities will, for example, have to change the received values by which women are discriminated against, often under the aegis of “culture”.
Higher education institutions often train the decision-makers who determine the social behaviour of citizens.
In most of the region, leaders and elites have at times behaved appallingly, going on luxury spending sprees on supposedly scarce public money in Western capitals while ordinary citizens live in grinding poverty – and apparently feel no compunction about it.
South African and African higher education institutions will have to produce graduates who are more socially conscious, with a greater sense of public duty, empathy and solidarity with society’s vulnerable and disadvantaged.
An expanded role will mean that universities will be active in broader societal and political discourses, and be actively involved in the nonformal learning of democratic values as well as everyday life learning.
Traditionally, higher education institutions have tended not to get involved in politics, although during the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, some universities actively participated in the public realm, promoting democratic values and opposing the apartheid governments.
In the post-apartheid (and postcolonial) period, higher education institutions in South Africa and Africa will have to stand clearly and publicly for the values of democracy.
This does not mean aligning themselves with political parties, but they must clearly oppose undemocratic practices by ruling parties, opposition forces and civil society. Higher education institutions will have to challenge (and provide platforms for others to challenge) outdated undemocratic practices in individual African countries.
They must offer platforms where democratic values, the inclusivity of development and diversity, and the quality of freedom, are constantly reassessed, evaluated and debated. In most African countries, democracy is viewed very narrowly (as only elections), or has been dismissed as “unAfrican”, or has been embraced only in public rhetoric.
It is the role of universities to shift this limited discourse on democracy towards one that interrogates how to foster quality democracies. Higher education institutions must also lead the debate on culture in the region, where elites often hide behind “culture” to dehumanise citizens and oppress women.
Elites have in some cases built a discourse against outsiders criticising undemocratic behaviour, arguing that their behaviour is part of indigenous culture.
Any individual criticising such “culture” is then dismissed as an agent of the former colonial powers. This abuse of culture has undermined both democracy and inclusive economic development throughout the region.
Universities have to lead the debunking of this abuse of culture for the purposes of self-enrichment. Higher education institutions will have to promote the idea of “interconnected differences”, based on respect for diversity and for the equality of treatment of different communities.
The democratic project within South Africa and the region will go nowhere unless a meritocratic culture, which balances redress to those historically disadvantaged, is actively promoted and lived.
Throughout Africa, women are generally worse off than men, including in terms of higher education.
Gender inequality in South Africa and Africa is high, with “culture” often used to legitimise the subjugation of women. Higher education institutions will have to change the received values that perpetuate gender inequality.
On this score, higher education institutions will have to educate not only their own immediate constituency, but also broader society. More women must obviously be appointed to critical positions in higher education institutions, but (as importantly) critical subjects that are in most cases inaccessible to women must be opened up.
Universities must play the role of transmitting democratic values in their own immediate communities, in the societies of which they are a part, and across the region.
Higher education must be the place where democratic values are lived, practised and promoted – it must be a vehicle for the transmission of values. Higher education institutions play a critical role in building tolerant societies.
In order to build tolerant societies, universities must themselves be tolerant communities. But in South Africa and Africa they have unfortunately often mirrored the intolerance of their societies, rather than being exporters of tolerance to the rest of society.
To respond effectively to the challenges of democratisation, universities will need stronger internal governance systems.
They will not be able to play their full roles in democratisation in the region unless academic freedom at individual and institutional levels becomes a reality.
The internal governance systems of higher education institutions must highlight key values, including a real commitment to promoting demo-cracy, the value systems of research and teaching (through, for example, quality assurance and control systems), and commitment to good corporate governance, accountability and efficient management.
Effective internal governance of universities is crucial to establish trust between higher education institutions and society – a prerequisite to secure and maintain societies’ buy-in to regulation and the autonomy for these institutions.
William Gumede is associate professor at the University of the Witwatersrand’s school of governance, chairperson of the Democracy Works Foundation and author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (published by Tafelberg). This is an edited extract from the research report Fostering a Regional Higher Education Identity in the Southern African Development Community, which he wrote for the Southern African Regional Universities Association