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AFRICA: Universities are training active citizens

The university and student life in Africa "present unmatched opportunities for exercising political activity and organisational leadership at a young age", new research into higher education and democracy in Kenya, South Africa and Tanzania has found. Universities are 'training grounds' for active citizenship, which is critical to sustaining democratic processes.

"Students are not only seated closer to the political action as observers but also as political actors," writes Thierry M Luescher-Mamashela, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa and lead author of a soon-to-be-published report on the research.

"The findings are also consistent with a potential 'hothouse effect' whereby high levels of citizenship involvement might disappear once a student leaves university and loses the advantages for cognitive engagement and political participation offered by the university."

The University in Africa and Democratic Citizenship: Hothouse or training ground? reports on student surveys conducted at the universities of Nairobi in Kenya, Cape Town in South Africa and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. It is authored by Luescher-Mamashela 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 research has investigated 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.

"Democratic processes require the active participation of citizens above participation in elections to be sustained," the report says. "The classic Kantian distinction between active and passive citizens implies that only those citizens who in one way or another actively participate in decision-making are indeed different from the subjects of a non-democratic polity.

For students to be able to successfully participate in politics on- and off-campus, they need to be cognitively engaged and aware of public affairs and politics. "Active participation presumably also has a positive feedback into cognitive awareness of politics as citizens learn about politics while doing it," write Luescher-Mamashela et al.

The views of student leaders and ordinary students were elicited using instruments adapted from Afrobarometer, which conducts large-scale quantitative analyses of the political attitudes and behaviours of African publics.

Student attitudes and behaviours were compared with each other and with mass publics surveyed by Afrobarometrer (Round 4: 2008-09) in three 'third wave' African democracies that experienced some liberalisation and democratisation in the aftermath of the Cold War.

The large universities of Nairobi, Cape Town and Dar es Salaam 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 produced a weighted sample of 400 third-year respondents. Interviews were also conducted with university managers and current or previous student leaders.

The research 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 on the research into students' cognitive engagement, political participation and active citizenship - "the way students actively participate in the political realm as observers, potential actors and actual actors". The study found that:

* Students were not necessarily more interested in politics than their fellow citizens. But they discussed politics far more frequently than their age peers without higher education and the public. More than 95% of the surveyed students at all three universities said they discussed politics frequently or at least occasionally with their friends and family, as against 78% of same age youth in Kenya, 75% in Tanzania and 63% in South Africa.

* Students made frequent use of a diversity of news media (radio, TV, newspapers, internet) at a level equal to or above that of mass publics. While radio was the most popular and used news medium by the public in all three countries, Nairobi students used radio as frequently as TV and the internet (86% daily or almost daily), students in Dar es Salaam most frequently used radio (93%) and TV (92%), and Cape Town students most frequently used the internet (86% daily or almost daily).

* Use of newspapers among Cape Town students (52%) was about equal to that of the public (54%) and their age cohort without higher education (52%). Among Nairobi students, newspaper use was considerably higher (72% read papers daily or almost daily) than national usage (30%). The difference was even larger in Tanzania where 79% of Dar es Salaam students used newspapers almost daily as against only 23% of the public.

* Internet access to news was almost entirely a student privilege. While 85% or more students in all three universities said they had access to and used the internet daily or several times a week, only around 10% of mass publics had this kind of access, including the age cohort without higher education.

* Thus in all three countries access to information about public affairs and politics (and thus potential for informed cognitive engagement) was considerably better and more frequent for students than among the mass publics and same-age peer groups without higher education.

* Whether the advantages for cognitive engagement provided by the university environment translated into better knowledge about politics was not conclusively found. But the surveys showed that Nairobi students were highly knowledgeable about political incumbents and officials on- and off-campus, and about features of decision-making institutions (albeit much less so), followed by Dar es Salaam and Cape Town students.

* Self-reported student participation in national elections was about equal to their age cohorts among Nairobi (79%) and Cape Town (62%) students, but lower among Dar es Salaam students (62% as against 83% of the national age cohort).

* As has been found in Afrobarometer surveys, a much higher percentage of respondents participate in collective political activity such as meetings and protests (39% of student surveyed) than in individual political activity including writing letters and contacting officials (13% of students).

* Student participation in political meetings and protests was highest at Dar es Salaam. There, 50% of students had taken part in a student demonstration in the previous year and 36% in a national protest; 29% of Nairobi students had participated in a demonstration on-campus and 28% off-campus; and 21% of Cape Town students had demonstrated on-campus and 17% off-campus. While Cape Town students participated in national demonstrations as much as the public, students at Dar es Salaam and Nairobi were around twice as likely to demonstrate than their fellow citizens.

* Active organisational membership in non-religious voluntary associations off-campus was much higher among Cape Town students (43%) and Dar es Salaam students (53%) than among their national age cohorts (11% and 29% respectively). It was slightly higher among Nairobi students (48%) than among the age cohort without higher education (43%). Active membership of religious groups off-campus was about the same at Cape Town and Dar es Salaam and about 10% less at Nairobi than among youths without higher education.

* Students were also highly involved in campus-based organisations. Some 71% of students at Dar es Salaam, 63% at Nairobi and 57% at Cape Town claimed active membership or leadership in a campus-based organisation.

* Students were more likely to be leaders of off-campus voluntary organisations than their age cohort without higher education: 29% of Nairobi students (versus 12% of the age cohort); 15% of Dar es Salaam students (versus 1% of the age cohort), and 13% of Cape Town students (versus 4% of same-age South Africans) claimed to be an official leader of an off-campus secular association.

* With respect to cognitive engagement and political participation, all three universities therefore offered significant advantages to the politically interested and politically-participatory student.

* A minority of students on each campus could be described as active citizens in the sense that they always preferred democracy and either participated in demonstrations or acted in formal capacities as student leaders. Active citizens represented 35% of students at Dar es Salaam, 27% at Nairobi and 22% at Cape Town. But compared to their fellow citizens, students were much more likely to be active democratic citizens.

"The disaggregation of mass data into the relevant age cohort shows that it is not youthfulness in general that accounts for the more activist involvement of students in politics, but predispositions and-or conditions associated with being at university," Luescher-Mamashela et al argue.

* Students specialised politically, focusing their activity on a particular type of political participation. Student leaders in student government and representation also tended to take leadership in other formal organisational contexts (on- and off-campus). Conversely, students inclined towards informal collective political activity on-campus (especially protesting) also engaged in such political activity off-campus. Formal and informal student leadership represented different student political specialisations on all three campuses.


It was clear that the three universities provided a privileged place for students' cognitive engagement with politics, the study concludes. The same could be said regarding political participation.

The universities of Dar es Salaam and Nairobi especially appeared "to provide havens for political activity with high levels of student involvement in political meetings and demonstrations on campus. Yet even at Cape Town students are more likely to participate in protests than mass publics when one adds their on- and off-campus experiences," it says.

Students' active membership of off-campus voluntary associations was much higher than that of mass publics, and was augmented by participation in on-campus organisations. Also, leadership of off-campus associations was far more likely among students than non-students.

"University and student life present unmatched opportunities for exercising political activity and organisational leadership at a young age. Students therefore are not only seated closer to the political action as observers but also as political actors," write Luescher-Mamashela et al.

"The university potentially offers a training ground for active citizenship in formally organised civil society as well as in informal and more unconventional forms of political participation."

The findings were also consistent with a 'hothouse effect': "High levels of citizenship involvement might disappear once a student leaves university and loses the advantages for cognitive engagement and political participation offered by the university."

* The executive summary of The University in Africa and Democratic Citizenship: Hothouse or training ground? has been published. To access it click here.
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