Envisioning a new African university | by Steve Sharra

by Oct 24, 2011Africa

The month of October marks eight months since lecturers at Chancellor College, University of Malawi, stopped teaching, demanding guarantees of academic freedom. Despite verbal assurances from President Bingu wa Mutharika for a win-win solution to the problems that have brought Chancellor College to a halt, it remains closed.
The latest bone of contention has been the firing of four lecturers, including Dr. Jessie Kabwila-Kapasula, acting president of the Chancellor College Academic Staff Union (CCASU). The University Council has remained steadfast in its refusal to reinstate the four lecturers, and the union has remained steadfast in its refusal to return to classes.
Commentary in the Malawian media and online has come to one conclusion: it is up to President Bingu wa Mutharika, Chancellor of the University of Malawi, to allow for the four lecturers to be reinstated, and therefore for normality to return to Chancellor College. But the president has made no such indication of changing his mind, and there is no end in sight to the standoff.
Returning to a basic question about what exactly caused this crisis, a political science lecturer, Dr. Blessings Chinsinga, mentioned the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt to illustrate a point during class. A student in the class reported the matter to the Inspector General of Police, Mr. Peter Mukhito, who summoned Dr. Chinsinga. Dr. Chinsinga reported the summons to CCASU, and the union issued a statement asking for an apology from the Mukhito, and an assurance of academic freedom. President Bingu wa Mutharika stepped in and declared that the Inspector General would not apologise. CCASU decided to boycott classes, citing fear of spies, a relic from the one-party regime that ended in 1994. The University Council the dismissed four lecturers, including Dr. Chinsinga. There have been several court sessions on various aspects of the crisis, but the matter has now come to rest on the firing of the four, who include the union’s legal advisor, Dr Garton Kamchedzera from the University of Malawi’s School of Law, and Mr. Franz Amin, General Secretary of CCASU. In the eyes of most Malawians commenting on the issue, the origin of the crisis is 12 February, the day Dr. Chinsinga met with Mr Mukhito.
But one question that has not been asked is whether the roots of this problem may lie much deeper, in the very nature of the Malawian public university in particular, and the modern African university in general. Notwithstanding the contradictory, ill-tempered mishandling of the problem by the president and the University Council, is it possible that the events of 12 February and thereafter happened due to the way Malawi has always envisioned higher education, since independence? Could the deeper problem lie with how modern, postcolonial African universities were created, modelled after European systems of higher learning, managed through borrowed European political structures, and therefore not entirely relevant to problems of postcolonial Africa?
These and similar questions ought to be at the centre of new ways of envisioning what universities in Africa ought to look like, as has been argued by Professor Mahmood Mamdani. They are the types of questions Africans ought to be asking as they re-imagine the place of the university in Africa and what role it could play in revitalising the continent. For Malawian universities, these questions are even more poignant now, given how the presidency’s political control of the public university system since independence has led to the current crisis, and other such crises before. This article takes up Professor Mamdani’s questions about the nature of the modern African university, and argues how the crisis in Malawi’s public university system might be better understood from the perspective of questions about how the modern African university was established. The article also suggests how unless addressed, undue political control will continue stifling the role universities might otherwise play in the production of African knowledge to address Africans realities.
Professor Mamdani is a Ugandan who is director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), at Makerere University in Uganda. He has held this position since mid-2010, when he returned to Uganda in 2010 after more than a decade at Columbia University in New York City, in the United States. He still maintains an endowed professorship at Columbia University. On 11 April 2011, Professor Mamdani presented a paper at the Makerere University Research and Innovations Dissemination Conference, in Uganda. Titled ‘The Importance of Research in a University’, the paper was published in issue 526 of Pambazuka News.
Mamdani’s key proposal in his paper was that Africa must train its next generation of scholars in African institutions, rather than in institutions outside Africa. He argued that this would address the fundamental problem underlying modern African universities: a model borrowed from European Enlightenment and out of touch with African realities. The Enlightenment was a period in 18th century Europe in which science became a dominant way of understanding the world. The Age of Enlightenment promoted reason and rationality, and influenced social changes away from religion and superstition. Scholarly traditions have since that time promoted Europe as the birthplace of science and reason, attracting, in the process, other scholarly traditions that critique the same Enlightenment claims. Mamdani poses a poignant question: ‘If the Enlightenment is said to be an exclusively European phenomenon, then the story of the Enlightenment is one that excludes Africa as it does most of the world. Can it then be the foundation on which we can build university education in Africa?’
Transplanted onto African soil, modern university systems have been blighted by several problems. In postcolonial Africa, universities have been developed as parastatals, an arrangement that has opened the door to government and political interference, undermining academic freedom. To deal with fundraising problems, African universities have been transformed into consulting agencies, with the consequence that independent research has all but died. Mamdani gives the example of his time at the University of Dar es Salaam in the 1970s. As a parastatal, academic freedom was undermined, but the university managed to create a ‘historically-informed, inter-disciplinary curriculum’. The University of Dar es Salaam developed a generation of public intellectuals who became widely known beyond Tanzania and Africa, but Mamdani cites Dar’s failure to nurture a new generation of public intellectuals as one of its weaknesses.
Later Mamdani moved to Makerere University, where he witnessed an attempt to commercialise the university. He says while the university was able to broaden its financial base, commercialisation also ‘opened the door to a galloping consultancy culture’. Neither Makerere nor Dar developed a post-graduate programme. The assumption was that post-graduate training would happen overseas.
Mamdani says the consultancy culture at African universities has changed the nature of research. Consultancy is about finding answers to a problem presented by a client, whereas genuine research is about ‘formulating a problem’. The ‘NGO-isation of the university’, as Mamdani calls it, has turned academic papers into ‘corporate-style power point presentations’, with the result that academics no longer read as much as they used to. Because of the consultancy model, and because funds for big research projects come from outside Africa, most research on the continent today is designed to answer questions that have been formulated outside the continent.
Mamdani says this happens not only in terms of geographical ‘location but also in terms of historical perspective’. In other words, the modern African university operates on a European paradigm, a complete break from Africa’s own ancient traditions of higher education that occurred in West and North Africa, in places such as Morocco, Mali and Egypt centuries before Europe developed its first university. There are no African paradigms determining the direction of research in Africa and formulating frameworks to better understand the root causes of African problems today.
In his paper, Mamdani argued that the solution to problems facing African universities was to educate a new generation of academics, researchers and public intellectuals. He said this new generation must be trained in the conditions they will work in. That is, they must be trained at home, on the African continent. Mamdani went ahead to outline a new, inter-disciplinary PhD programme that his Makerere Institute of Social Research is embarking on. This new PhD programme will, in his words, ‘challenge the foundations of the prevailing paradigm which has turned the dominant Western experience into a model which conceives of research as no more than a demonstration that societies around the world either conform to or deviate from that model.’ It is a model that ‘dehistoricises and decontextualizes other experiences, whether Western or non-Western’. The new PhD programme at MISR will seek not to ‘oppose the local to the global’, but to ‘understand the global from the vantage point of the local’. The idea will be to ‘nurture a scholarly community that is equipped to rethink – in both intellectual and institutional terms – the very nature of the university and of the function it is meant to serve locally and globally.’
It is undisputable that training the next generation of African researchers and intellectuals at home will be part of a new paradigm to make African universities relevant to the African context. Amongst the factors that have worsened the problem of transplanting European systems onto African soil has been the postcolonial political systems in Africa, themselves European transplants onto African contexts. This is not to suggest that borrowed systems are always flawed, no. What is more important is to handle the borrowing process with enough care so as to adapt and modify where necessary.
Malawi is planning six new universities in the next ten years, seen as a solution to the problem of access, quality and relevance that has bedevilled the country since independence. It is incumbent upon Malawians to sort out the issue of academic freedom, quality education and relevance before these six new universities take off, as UDF parliamentarian, Atupele Muluzi, said in parliament (Malawi News, 18 June, 2011). The key challenge in the intermediate period will be for Malawi and other African countries to find ways of supporting and strengthening universities with every resource at governments’ disposal, without due political interference.
Mamdani explained, in emailed correspondence, that in Uganda direct government control of public universities was in 2001 replaced with council governance, although government retained some control over the council’s membership. The same is true of Malawi. But Uganda went a step further to make the vice chancellorship, deanships and department headships elected positions. The government is said to be calling for new legislation to retain greater control, according to Mamdani.
The issues raised by Mamdani might help us see the events of 12 February in Malawi, and their aftermath, as being occasioned by the nature of the university system in Malawi and elsewhere in Africa. To the extent that breaches of academic freedom in African universities are a frequent occurrence, the deeper problem does lie with how modern, postcolonial African universities were created, modelled after European systems of higher learning and managed through borrowed European political structures. This raises the issue of the African university’s relevancy to problems of postcolonial Africa. Post-colonial African universities, and universities in other parts of the world, routinely face similar struggles for academic freedom.
For Malawi and other countries in Africa and elsewhere, as long as divisive and uncalled for political interference continues to be a determining factor in the running of public universities, the struggle for academic freedom will continue. The key challenge for African universities in the long term will be the one Mamdani is posing: the development of a scholarly and intellectual community able to rethink and reconceive a different type of African university that seeks to better understand African problems, and to deal with the ‘global from the vantage point of the local’.
Issue 552 Pambazuka
* Steve Sharra, Ph.D, is a Malawian teacher educator and educational researcher. He blogs at Afrika Aphukira and at Global Voices Online.
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.
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