Universities in Africa ‘don’t understand what they are’

African universities must resist the blandishments of short-sighted politicians, wealthy donors and the advocates of radical change in higher education if they are to deliver on their core mandate of supporting local and national development, according to Nelson Masanche Nkhoma, who is a researcher at the Institute for Post-School Studies at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa.

Rather, Nkhoma says, the universities should be proactive, practical and confident in their ability to solve the problems faced by African societies and economies, while also taking a long, hard look at the extent and kind of their current limitations.

Acknowledging that the relevance of the contribution made by universities has been “somewhat mixed”, he, nevertheless, envisages a crucial role for them in training, knowledge production and “creating a particular vision of society”.

“They are well-positioned compared with other external stakeholders or politicians whose efforts to shape the direction that African countries should take may be undermined by a relative lack of expertise and their own parochial interests, which may be corrupt,” he says.

In this context, he argues that efforts to shift knowledge-production agendas so that they address national development concerns effectively should be grounded on a clear understanding of universities’ current institutional reality.

“The challenge for universities in Africa is that they don’t understand what they are,” he says.

“The problem is exacerbated by the influence being wielded by people with money who have different agendas for what the university should try and achieve. Without a clear understanding of its own role and, thus, its future direction, the university is in danger of becoming just an instrument in other people’s games.”

‘Don’t sacrifice … institutional strengths’

In this regard, Nkhoma gives warning, universities should be wary of sacrificing their present institutional strengths on the altar of purportedly radical transformation.

In particular, he advises South African universities to take careful stock of what is being proposed in the name of ‘decolonisation’ before taking action.

“The debate about decolonising the university which is taking place in South Africa is quite unclear about what the university is supposed to be decolonised from, although such clarity is necessary if the university is to move forward in relation to this idea,” he says.

Nkhoma advises that, since higher education systems and institutions are generally slow to change, their transformation can only be implemented gradually and with due consideration.

“So, I am wary of people who use cheap rhetoric, which is quite common now,” he says.

“For example, the debate around decolonisation taking place in South African universities feels somewhat detached from the discourse among other higher education institutions in Africa, perhaps because the country is in a relatively remote part of the continent.”

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