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AFRICA: University - A democratic hothouse?

A new study has indicated that at only one out of three African universities are most students "unreservedly committed democrats". And youths in Kenya and Tanzania with no higher education are more committed to democracy than students are. Only in South Africa are students more passionate about democracy than their non-student peers and the public.

But the study of universities and democratic citizenship in three African countries also showed that students understand democracy, that over 80% always reject non-democratic regime types, and that students are consistently more critical than the public of their national political systems.

The research concluded that all three universities surveyed were "akin to a hothouse in that they provide a unique environment for awareness and knowledge about politics to blossom. However, once a student leaves the university the hothouse effect may well disappear."

By strengthening student development through training and support, higher education institutions had the opportunity "to simultaneously enhance student life as well as the university's contribution to democracy".

The University in Africa and Democratic Citizenship: Hothouse or training ground? reports on student surveys conducted at the University of Nairobi in Kenya, the University of Cape Town in South Africa, and the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania

It is authored by Thierry M Luescher-Mamashela, a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, with Sam Kiiru, Robert Mattes, Angolwisye Mwollo-Ntallima, Njuguna Ng'ethe and Michelle Romo.

The study was conducted for the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa, HERANA, a major initiative launched in 2007 and coordinated by the Centre for Higher Education Transformation in Cape Town, CHET. University World News (Africa) is a partner.

HERANA has been exploring the relationship between universities and development, focusing on economic development and democratisation. The student governance surveys were conducted as one of three studies in the 'democratisation' stream.


The past two decades have seen political transition in many African countries, from single-party authoritarian rule to economic and political liberalism and multi-party democracy. Kenya, South Africa and Tanzania fall into the African group of 'third wave democracies', having experienced some liberalisation and democratisation in the aftermath of the Cold War.

While all three countries made significant democratic gains in the 1990s, in the 2000s only Tanzania has made minor democratic improvements while the democratisation process has stagnated in South Africa and deteriorated in Kenya. "Democratisation is an ongoing project," writes Luescher-Mamashela.

Higher education is recognised as key to delivering the knowledge requirements for political development. It is essential for the design and operation of key modern political institutions and is mandated to help develop an enlightened, critically constructive citizenry.

But whether and how higher education contributes to democratisation beyond producing the professionals necessary for a modern political system has remained an unresolved question.

"Research conducted in the African context has produced so far ambiguous findings, ranging from a strong positive correlation between higher levels of education and democratic attitudes and behaviours to conclusions that higher levels of education only offer 'diminishing returns' for the development of democratic citizenship in Africa," says the report.

Afrobarometer surveys since 1999 have enabled large-scale, comparative, quantitative analyses of the political attitudes and behaviours of African publics for the first time. But because of low higher education participation rates in most African countries - around 5% for Sub-Saharan Africa - ita surveys have produced samples of people with higher education that are too small for robust comparisons.

The HERANA student governance study surveyed students in statistically comparable numbers, and questioned their democratic attitudes and behaviour in an effort to understand the contribution of African universities to citizenship development.

It investigated whether students demanded democracy (committed democrats), how they perceived the supply of democracy in their country (critical citizens), how engaged they were in politics (active citizens), and what their views were on democratic consolidation and regime change (transformative democrats). This article focuses only on the first two aspects.

The surveys

The views of student leaders and ordinary students were captured using Afrobarometer instruments adapted for the study, and compared with each other and with the attitudes and behaviours of mass publics surveyed by Afrobarometrer (Round 4: 2008-09).

The three universities - Nairobi (36,000 students), Cape Town (24,000) and Dar es Salaam (18,000) - were chosen for being the oldest and arguably the most prestigious universities in their countries, and thus for their "potential significance in the reproduction of the social, economic and political elites".

The surveys were conducted in 2009 by local research teams. Each survey produced a weighted sample of 400 respondents, representative of the third-year undergraduate student body. Interviews were also conducted with key university managers and current or previous student leaders (10% of the sample) to gain further insight.

"The response rate for the survey was extraordinarily high, with over 96% of questionnaire items fully answered," Luescher-Mamashela writes.

Some findings

The surveys revealed that students' political attitudes and behaviours were influenced by their national contexts. But there were also important commonalities among students in the three universities, and differences between them, non-students and mass publics.

The "most plausible explanation for certain student-typical commonalities", writes Luescher-Mamashela, is "that it is higher education, the university, and distinctive features of student life, which predispose students to certain typical political attitudes and behaviours".

The research thus confirmed the fundamental assumption that gave rise to the project. More importantly, "the conscious cultivation of certain values and practices that are conducive to more democratic political attitudes and behaviours offers the potential for higher education to uniquely contribute to citizenship development and democratisation in Africa."

Awareness of democracy

The surveys investigated students' awareness of the term 'democracy', their conceptions of democracy, and their views on what features of society were essential for a country to be called a democracy. They found that:

  • More than nine in 10 students could provide a comprehensible and valid definition of democracy in their own words. "Almost all of their definitions carry a positive connotation."

  • Nearly half of the students (47%) defined democracy in terms of political rights and civil freedoms; just over a third (34%) as popular participation and deliberation in politics; and less than a tenth as equality, fairness, justice, rule of law or good governance. The notion of democracy as socio-economic development or access to basic services was "almost completely absent" from students' definitions of democracy (1%).

  • When prompted with a multiple choice of potentially important features of democracy, most students considered all of them as 'absolutely important' or 'important' - and interestingly, social-democratic concerns such as provision of basis services and equality in education, came out on top of the preferences, ahead of political goods such as freedom of speech or majority rule.

    Preference for democracy and demand for freedom

    Taking the notions of 'demand for democracy' and of 'committed democrat' as touchstones, the research investigated the extent to which students preferred democracy and related freedoms over authoritarian regime types. The findings were that:

  • More than two-thirds of students (69%) always preferred democracy and over 80% always rejected non-democratic regime types such as one-party rule, military rule and presidential strongman rule as alternatives to democracy for their national government.

  • Demand for key political and civil rights, such as free speech, press freedom and freedom of association, was high among students on all campuses and highest at Cape Town, "albeit not as unfettered freedoms", the report says.

  • Only a minority of students at Nairobi (45%) and Dar es Salaam (36%) could be described as "unreservedly committed democrats in that they always prefer democracy and reject non-democratic regime alternatives in all cases". The students were less committed to democracy than their national age cohort with no higher education (Kenya 55%, Tanzania 43%) and the mass publics in their countries (Kenya 63%, Tanzania 46%).

  • In contrast, 54% of Cape Town students could be considered committed democrats by this definition, considerably more than the South African mass public (35%) and their age peers without higher education (32%).

  • There was no significant correlation between involvement in formal student leadership and being a committed democrat. Also, an attempt to explain support for democracy among the students in terms of social structure, institutional and cultural factors, and attitudinal and behavioural variables, yielded "very weak" results.

    Perceived supply of democracy and democratic consolidation

    The surveys probed the extent to which the political systems of Kenya, South Africa and Tanzania satisfied students' political ideals. Students were asked whether they considered their country to be a democracy, and whether elections were free and fair.

    The research showed the extent to which students may be considered 'critical citizens' and 'transformative democrats' who always prefer democracy, how critical they were of democracy in their country, and how impatient to see regime change:

  • Most students in all three universities considered their country to be 'not a democracy' or 'a democracy with major problems' (Nairobi 86%, Dar es Salaam 66%, Cape Town 52%). Nairobi students were the most critical, with fewer than 15% considering their country democratic.

  • The students were "far more critical" of the extent of democracy than their age peers and mass publics. While 43% of Kenyans considered their country a 'full democracy' or a 'democracy with minor problems', only 15% of Nairobi students did. And while 74% of Tanzanians and 58% of South Africans thought their country was a full or almost full democracy, this was the case for only 34% of students at Dar es Salaam and 48% at Cape Town. "The low democracy endorsement that Kenya receives may be understood in relation to the post-2007 election turmoil there," Luescher-Mamashela points out.

  • Most students from the East African universities were not satisfied with the way government worked in their country (Nairobi 87%, Dar es Salaam 70%). Only at Cape Town were most students (57%) fairly or very satisfied with the way democracy worked, which was more than South Africans in general (49%).

  • The perspective of Nairobi students was that Kenya's political system "was unconsolidated and ready for pro-democratic regime change", while Dar es Salaam students felt the Tanzanian regime offered some room for reform and deepening democracy. In contrast, South African democracy appeared "fairly consolidated" in the view of Cape Town students.

  • Correspondingly, most Nairobi students (61%) emerged as potentially 'transformative democrats' - citizens who always prefer democracy, are critical of the extent of democracy in their country, and are impatient to see regime change. Just under half of Dar es Salaam students (47%) and about 40% at Cape Town qualified as pro-democratically minded potential regime transformers. "The number of complacent and fairly uncritical democrats is highest among Cape Town students with over 32% of respondents falling into this category," writes Luescher-Mamashela.

  • The students from all three campuses were significantly more likely to be critical and impatient transformative democrats than their fellow citizens and age peers without higher education. The percentage of transformative democrats of same age cohort in the mass samples were 29% in Kenya, 26% in South Africa and 29% in Tanzania.

    Some conclusions

    Future articles will report on other aspects of the student governance surveys. But for those questions reported here, Luescher-Mamashela concluded that students were "well-acquainted with democracy as a political system involving popular participation in decision-making, multi-party elections and a necessary set of political rights and freedoms.

    "Over two-thirds of students prefer democracy to any other regime type and typically over 80% reject any or all offered non-democratic regime alternatives. At the same time demand for freedoms important in a democracy (like press freedom, free speech and freedom of association) is also high, albeit with some reservations."

    However, using the notion of a 'committed democrat', a minority of students at Nairobi and Dar es Salaam could be described thus, and they emerged as less committed to democracy than their age peers without higher education or than the general public. Indeed, says the report, of all the samples "the Kenyan public appears as 'champions of democracy'".

    "While Cape Town students are not as committed to democracy as the Kenyan public, they are the most committed student group in the inter-university comparison, and in the intra-South African comparison, they are by far more committed to democracy than their age reference group," Luescher-Mamashela writes.

    "With regard to higher education's contribution to commitment to democracy per se, the findings of the student governance surveys therefore paint a mixed picture."

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