The idea of universities in Africa as places for the pursuit of knowledge has been denigrated by influential voices promoting the view that they should rather operate as instruments to fix the continent’s maladies, says Patrício Langa, an associate professor of higher education at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa.
Meanwhile, without clarity on the differentiation in the system to promote different purposes and types of higher education institutions, massification will continue to turn universities into diploma mills that promote rote learning and reproduce mediocrity, rather than fostering the pursuit of new knowledge.
To address this malaise, the first thing to clarify is the purpose of the university, per se, as a special type of higher education institution, says Langa, who is also a distinguished professor at Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, Mozambique.
“Currently, there are two main competing visions of the university in Africa,” he explains. “One is that universities should engage in the pursuit of knowledge through formulating conceptual and methodological problems which contribute to the global theory of knowledge.”
“Second, there is this prevalent, dominant idea that universities should seek to find technical solutions for perceived socio-economic problems and should have an instrumental role in improving governance on the continent.
“Under this view, the possibility of universities as places for the pursuit of knowledge is denigrated and placed under threat, with the institutions that adopt this agenda being labelled ‘ivory towers’.”
Langa traces the problem back to the establishment of “so-called developmental universities” in the 1980s, at time when the viability of the universities as functioning institutions increasingly came to depend on accessing external support. At which point, he says, the sector was forced to neo-liberalise and open itself to the forces of the free market.
“The state was [then] no longer able to exert sole control over the terms of access to higher education … and new forces, including local actors in the private sector, were able to pursue new agendas, some of which were inimical to the very idea of the university,” he says.
Subsequently, Langa notes, the idea of the university as a toolkit of sorts for addressing all the maladies of Africa prevailed.
“In my view,” he says, “this is the main challenge that is preventing the establishment of a vision of the African university that is actually appropriate to conceptualising the problems faced by the continent in African terms so that they may be solved.”
Placing the problem in the global geopolitical and economic context, he says: “Until the shape of the university is determined by Africans on their own terms, which is not the case at present, then the definition of who should participate in the university also is being shaped by external forces.”
Universities remain relevant
Nevertheless, Langa says: “One thing that would seem to be certain is that universities are relevant, otherwise societies would have done away with them.”
Meanwhile, in the context of negotiating the nature of an African university within a globally interconnected world, there has been, Langa contends, a broad failure to produce more differentiated provision of higher education structured to meet the wide-ranging needs of the various African societies across the continent; and a concomitant failure to promote differentiated access to the tertiary sector.
“I think it is important to differentiate between universities and other kinds of higher education institutions on the basis of the needs of the particular society,” he notes.
“Accordingly, only those who pursue knowledge should attend universities. Other students with different agendas, such as to apply knowledge, or to fix problems – whatever those might be – should find their place elsewhere within the higher education system.
“The point being that, in a differentiated system, it is not desirable that everyone should be flocking to universities.”
In this regard, Langa advises, appropriate policies should be produced to screen applicants, identifying who should go where, while also ensuring that inequalities are not reproduced, such as through exclusive access to a university education for economically advantaged students.
At the same time, Langa notes, one of the key challenges that should be addressed in establishing a differentiated system is the issue of status – and the hierarchy of status that currently exists in relation to higher education on the continent, which prizes a university education over a technical education.
For example, he says: “In some African systems, this obsession with status was made manifest when technikons [polytechnics] were renamed ‘universities of technology’, not because their function had changed, but in the name of prestige.”