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African universities are ‘diploma factories’


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The idea of ​​universities in Africa as places for the pursuit of knowledge has been denigrated by influential voices who promote the view that they should operate more as instruments to cure the continent’s ills, says Patrício Langa, associate professor of higher education at the University of the Western Cape.

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, instead of encouraging the search for new knowledge.

To address this malaise, the first thing to clarify is the purpose of the university, 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 must engage in the search for knowledge by formulating conceptual and methodological problems that contribute to the global theory of knowledge.

“Secondly, there is this prevailing and dominant idea that universities should seek technical solutions to perceived socio-economic problems and should have a fundamental role in improving governance on the continent.

“Under this view, the potential of universities as places for the pursuit of knowledge is denigrated and threatened, and institutions that embrace this agenda are labeled ‘ivory towers.'”

‘development university’

Langa traces the problem back to the establishment of “so-called development universities” in the 1980s, at a time when the viability of universities became increasingly dependent on access to external support. The sector was forced to open up to the forces of the free market.

“The state was [then] it could no longer exert exclusive control over the conditions of access to higher education… and new forces, including local private sector actors, were able to pursue new agendas, some of which were contrary to the very idea of ​​the university.” said. she says.

Subsequently, the idea of ​​the university as a set of tools to address all the diseases of Africa prevailed.

“In my opinion, this is the main challenge that prevents establishing a vision of the African university that is really adequate to conceptualize the problems facing the continent in African terms so that they can be solved.”

Situating the issue in the global geopolitical and economic context, he says: “Until Africans determine the shape of the university on their own terms, then the definition of who should participate in the university is also being shaped by external forces.”

Universities are still relevant

However, Langa says: “One thing that seems certain is that universities are relevant, otherwise societies would have eliminated them.”

Meanwhile, in the context of negotiating the nature of an African university in a globally interconnected world, there has been a widespread failure to produce more differentiated and structured higher education arrangements to meet the far-reaching needs of African societies, and a concomitant failure to promote differentiated access to the tertiary sector.

“I think it’s important to differentiate between universities and other types of higher education institutions based on the needs of the particular society,” he says.

“Consequently, only those who pursue knowledge should attend universities. Other students with different agendas, such as applying knowledge or solving problems, should find their place elsewhere within the higher education system.

“The point is that, in a differentiated system, you don’t want everyone flocking to universities.”

Langa advises developing appropriate policies to screen applicants, identifying who should go where, while ensuring that inequalities are not reproduced, such as through exclusive access to a university education for economically advantaged students.

Langa points out that one of the key challenges that must be addressed when establishing a differentiated system is the issue of status, and the status hierarchy that exists in relation to higher education on the continent, which rewards university education over technical education.

“This obsession with status was revealed when the technikons were renamed ‘technology universities’, not because their function had changed, but in the name of prestige.”

Massify vs differentiate

He also points to the challenge posed by political support for massification at the expense of differentiation.

“Many African countries have failed to establish a framework to differentiate higher education provision and instead continue to pursue the idea of ​​universal access as a political priority,” he says.

“This despite the evidence from experience, which shows that the search for massification in an undifferentiated system eradicates the space for knowledge and leads to the production of graduates who have serious problems integrating and contributing to their societies, or move towards means of life, employment or entrepreneurship.”

Langa contrasts the situation in Africa in this regard with the efforts that have been made elsewhere to promote differentiation and how these have produced significant benefits.

For example, in Europe, there seems to be some clarity about the purposes of the various institutions of the higher education system, with the various bodies labeled according to their function, which has the effect of facilitating articulation within the system under which students they can transition from one institution to another as appropriate,” he says.

On the subject of the types of knowledge that can be learned and produced in higher education institutions, Langa expresses reservations about attempts to decolonize the university in Africa from the perspective of southern epistemologies and indigenous knowledge.

It points to the value and political effect of such efforts to address and tear down “a structure that has prevented recognition of the contributions of Africans and other groups to science and knowledge as a global public good.”

At the same time, there is a “deep intellectual concern that this decolonial project, insofar as it values ​​indigenous knowledge, is anti-universal and therefore hostile to the idea of ​​the university.”

As much as indigenous knowledge should be promoted, “this should not be done at the expense of the university and the kind of knowledge that is supposed to be produced in a university context both in terms of its diversity and the quality of its theoretical content” , he says.

Langa also finds cause for skepticism about the lessons that can be learned from universities in Africa’s efforts to remain operational under Covid-19 lockdown restrictions.

Rather than view the shift to online teaching and learning during this period as heralding a new dawn of greater access to higher education, Langa points to how limitations on in-person access showed the limited nature of the reason for be from African higher education institutions. while depriving them of it.

reproduction of mediocrity

“The disruption of Covid-19 exposed as an illusion the idea that African universities are places of learning; revealing them for what they really are, that they are sites of rote learning, the reproduction of mediocrity and the distribution of credentials, rather than places to seek new knowledge,” he says.

“As teaching institutions, rather than learning institutions, most African universities were unable to carry out their core activities under the Covid-19 restrictions and since these institutions were no longer able to teach, students were left idling. at home.

“In contrast, if these universities were, in fact, universities, students would have continued to learn with the support of academic staff and with the help of digital technology, without having to be on campus, despite these widely expressed concerns. about the digital divide”, he says.

“The issue here is not so much about increasing accessibility through the deployment of digital technologies, but rather how this moment of realization can be used to recalibrate the system and free students from the current type of rotten university, which doesn’t even teach that’s fine and, instead, promote pedagogies that do not lead to learning”.

Langa is also skeptical that the notion of the university as a place to contribute to the global theory of knowledge will soon be realized in Africa.

He argues that “it is important to recognize that the reality is that there is no such thing as an African university”, and that the idea of ​​an African university, per se, should not even be pursued today, because “it is [not] ontologically possible.

Rather, the university in Africa remains “an ambivalent experiment that reflects the very existential condition of the continent.”

Therefore, his focus is on the role of the scholar: “What I aspire to as an African scholar [is] contribute to the general theory of knowledge about higher education. “In this sense, African academics like myself are often expected to only do science and research in Africa with the intention of contributing to understanding Africa.

“But I think the most important contribution that we can make as academics is to not just focus on Africa, but to contribute to science in general, and therefore to contribute to Africa.”

This is an edited version of an article first published by News from the University World and is based on an interview by Professor Ibrahim Oanda for The Imprint of Education project implemented by the Human Sciences Research Council with the Mastercard Foundation.

Mark Paterson is a policy and communications consultant. Thierry M Luescher is a Research Fellow at the HSRC and an Affiliate Professor at the University of the Free State.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian..


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