Higher education strengthens political development and democratisation in Africa in various ways, as three research projects by HERANA (Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa) have found. While the results of the studies are ambiguous, they reveal opportunities through sustained research to both improve the quality of higher education and support the development of democracy on the continent.
As part of the 'third wave of democracy', a great number of African nations embarked on transitions to economic and political liberalisation and democratisation in the 1990s, embracing competitive, multi-party electoral systems within an enabling framework of political and civil rights.
Most recently, the Arab Spring has further raised hopes for the political emancipation and democratisation of countries on the continent.
Yet, the global history of democracy - and recent experiences in countries such as Cote d'Ivoire, Kenya and Zimbabwe - shows that the democratisation of state and society is not an event; it is an ongoing process marred by difficulties.
As in the 'old democracies' of the West, the political emancipation of the people of the 'new democracies' of the East and global South remains in different areas of governance and at varying degrees incomplete (and this is not to mention the even greater incompleteness of people's economic emancipation).
Thus, complementary to studies on higher education's contribution to economic development in Africa, a number of researchers affiliated with the universities of Cape Town, Dar es Salaam, Nairobi and the Western Cape, coordinated by the Centre for Higher Education Transformation, investigated higher education's contribution to democracy in Africa.
Individually, the three HERANA studies that investigated the role and contribution of higher education in the democratisation of politics in Africa reached somewhat ambiguous results.
On the one hand, the analysis of Afrobarometer mass public opinion data from across the continent showed that African citizens with higher education were only marginally more supportive of democracy than those without higher education, but that overall formal education as a whole made a sizeable impact on democratic attitudes among Africans.
On almost all indicators the study, The Limited Impacts of Formal Education on Democratic Citizenship in Africa by Robert Mattes and Dangalira Mughogho, found that higher education had a disappointingly small contribution in inculcating democratic attitudes among graduates.
On the other hand, the related study of the role conceptions and behaviours of members of African legislatures, Education, Legislators and Legislatures in Africa by Robert Mattes and Shaheen Mozaffar, showed that higher education's contribution was critical.
Not only are African parliaments overwhelmingly composed of members who have some form of higher education, but unlike their peers without higher education, highly educated MPs also tend to understand much better the complex operation of legislatures, and are less partisan and more oriented towards strengthening the democratic functions of legislatures and political and economic reforms.
The third HERANA study, The University in Africa and Democratic Citizenship: Hothouse or training ground?, was written by me and Sam Kiiru, Robert Mattes, Angolwisye Mwollo-Ntallima, Njuguna Ng'ethe and Michelle Romo.
It specifically looked at the political attitudes and behaviours of third-year undergraduate students at three African flagship universities: the University of Cape Town in South Africa, the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and the University of Nairobi in Kenya.
The purpose was precisely to 'drill down' into the student experience and seek to uncover what aspects of students' political lives, on- and off-campus, might explain the mixed findings of the other studies.
It confirmed and enriched many of the findings of the other two studies: highly educated citizens in Africa are not necessarily more supportive of democracy per se; however, they are significantly more critical of the performance of their economy, government and larger democratic regime, and they are better informed and obtain their information about politics from a greater variety of news media than less educated citizens.
This is clearly evident already among students at university. Moreover, the comparison of the student survey data with data on youth of the same age cohorts but without higher education in their country (as availed by Afrobarometer) further shows that universities in Africa have a great potential to act as 'sites of citizenship' and training grounds for a new democratically minded leadership in politics and civil society.
This is inferred from data showing that students have far higher levels of political participation, political knowledge and news media use than their less educated peers, and from their extensive organisational involvement on-campus (for example, in student governance and religious and non-religious student organisations) and off-campus in various kinds of associations and groupings of civil society, which gives students valuable insight into the operation of civil society institutions and opportunities for leadership at a young age that are not available to that extent to non-students.
Taken together, the findings of the three HERANA studies thus show that Africa's schools and universities have paid democratic dividends (Mattes and Luescher-Mamashela 2011, forthcoming in the Journal of Higher Education in Africa).
However, in order to harness the full potential of African universities to contribute to political stability, development and democracy in their respective contexts, they need to harness the potential inherent in certain university-typical conditions (that frequently turn universities into hothouses of student political activism) to act as effective 'training grounds' for democratic citizenship and leadership - not in the service of any particular political party or ideology, but as places where students and student leaders can learn how democracy works and that democracy works (as Ivar Bleiklie puts it).
While the HERANA studies have provided important evidence on the nexus of higher education and democracy in Africa, this topic is by no means exhausted.
Unlike elsewhere in the world where the question of the nexus of higher education and democracy has come to be expended in largely rhetorical terms (see Sir Peter Scott's contribution to this special edition), there is a political urgency and vitality in Africa - or a window of opportunity, if you will - whereby through a sustained research programme we can not only improve the quality of higher education, but also assist in the development and consolidation of democracy on the continent.
* Dr Thierry Luescher-Mamashela is a senior researcher for HERANA and extraordinary senior lecturer in political studies at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa.
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