Do universities in the Sub-Sahara serve the public good?

To what extent can higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa promote the public good? This was the theme that the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) chose for a special issue of the Journal of Higher Education in Africa. In their exploration of the public good role of universities, researchers touched on colonialism, commercialisation, elitism and corruption.

The guest editors of the special issue on ‘Conceptualising and Researching the Public Good Role of Universities in Africa’, Professor Elaine Unterhalter, the co-director of the Centre for Education and International Development at the University College London, and Professor Stephanie Allais of the Centre for Researching Education at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) in South Africa, worked with eight other scholars in probing the ability of African universities to enhance their contribution to the public good of societies in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The researchers worked on a theoretical framework suggesting that public goods are commodities that are available to all and can be enjoyed over and over again by anyone without diminishing the benefits they deliver to others. Universal public goods include clean air, knowledge of public health, good governance, freedom from oppression, support for human rights and conflict resolution.

The philosophical concept was developed by Paul Samuelson (1915-2009), an American economist, who described public goods as those products or services that are non-rivalrous and non-excludable, meaning that they cannot be used to only benefit a certain group of people.

In this regard, the CODESRIA-backed researchers noted that higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa could promote the public good that has a wide range of instrumental and ethical benefits.

Unterhalter and Allais identified four pillars of public goods in higher education in the region, namely: equity and social development; funding, employment and economic growth; pedagogy and curriculum; and the lived experience of space and work in universities

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