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Re-thinking student engagement’s role in African political development

A rethinking of Manuel Castells’ argument about the functions of universities in relation to political development provides the starting point for analysing the contribution of student engagement to citizenship competences conducted in a study by HERANA – the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa.

This underpins the chapter “Student Engagement and Citizenship Competences” in the new book Knowledge Production and Contradictory Functions in African Higher Education by Nico Cloete, Peter Maassen and Tracy Bailey [1].

In his 2009 lectures, Castells argued that the first role of universities had historically been that of ideological apparatuses and producers of values and social legitimation.

Flagship and elite universities especially have played a key role in the selection of elites; in their socialisation and the formation of networks for their social cohesion.

Furthermore, universities play the crucial role of training high-skilled people, which includes of course the highly skilled labour force needed to run the complex institutions of modern society, including institutions of democracy and other state institutions and civil society organisations.

And finally, there is the universities’ role in producing new knowledge, whereby the socio-economic and political conditions are of major importance to create the structural conditions for development.

Evidently all these functions involve elements of political socialisation.

They gain much greater significance in a context of democratisation and political development, and with respect to flagship universities, which are expected to play multiple related roles as ‘engines of development’ in their countries.

How does the democratic ‘training ground’ function of universities work in practice? As a means to conceptualise this question, the HERANA researchers borrowed from the latest ‘buzzword’ in higher education research: student engagement.

Student engagement has come to be defined over the last decade by George Kuh and others as “the time and effort students devote to activities that are empirically linked to desired outcomes of college, and what institutions do to induce students to participate in these activities”.

The usefulness of this theoretical construct for understanding learning outcome success has become widely confirmed; yet, less is known as to the wider implications of higher levels of student engagement on, for example, career prospects and citizenship.

Of relevance beyond Africa

In his review of the HERANA study, Dr Igor Chirikov of the Centre for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley, argues that the HERANA work on student engagement and citizenship competences in Africa is unique and pathbreaking:

“It is one of the first empirically-driven attempts to approach such complicated questions and to identify what universities realistically could do to develop values of democracy and citizenship among their students. The project relevancy goes far beyond the African continent to many developing countries that struggle with civic engagement and establishing truly democratic governance systems.”

The HERANA study used a census-based e-survey design – drawing on the SERU, or Student Experience in the Research University, methodology developed at the Berkeley centre – to survey the undergraduate students of Makerere University in Kampala (Uganda) and of the University of Cape Town (South Africa).

The results of the study show that certain aspects of student engagement, which can be clustered under the four rubrics of institutional culture, academic engagement, co-curricular engagement and discursive engagement, effectively develop high-level citizenship competences.

Using this methodology, universities can therefore measure the student experience with respect to its contribution to the development of citizenship competences such as leadership skills, civic skills, diversity and social skills, and support for democracy.

Study findings and implications

Exploring different statistical models and indicators of the student experience and competences, this chapter has shown that the best models of engagement explain up to a third of the variation in levels of civic, diversity and social skills, as well as separately between a quarter and two-fifths of the variation in diversity and social skills, leadership skills, and student attitudes towards good citizenship, respectively.

The findings therefore not only confirm the usefulness of the student engagement construct and the HERANA methodology for studying and improving the student experience to enhance higher education’s contribution to citizenship in Africa, but they also provide evidence of the way that processes of student engagement relate to and enhance citizenship competences.

The findings thus invite reflection on what Kuh calls ‘high-impact practices’. If well designed, many of the prominent ‘high-impact practices’ for teaching and learning success are likely to also have a positive impact on citizenship competences insofar as they correlate with many of the same academic engagement measures.

In addition, the HERANA surveys show that there is a critical role to be played in the co-curriculum and particularly student affairs civic skills training activity, student involvement in student politics, and student volunteering in student-run development agencies and advocacy groups.

These aspects of student engagement cumulate with the stimulation of a discursively-engaged, diversity-respecting campus culture that is abuzz with debates on global issues, stimulates interest in and discussions of public affairs and politics, and enables meaningful interactions with diverse others.

In the broader perspective, the study shows that the multiple roles that African flagship universities are meant to play in development – in producing and diffusing new values and knowledge, training high-skilled professionals and developing competent citizens and democratic leaders for state and civil society – empirically coincide in terms of student engagement.

Institutional and national higher education policy-makers therefore have a conceptual, methodological and practical tool to measure and enhance higher education’s contribution to political development and democratisation in Africa.

Dr Thierry Luescher-Mamashela is senior researcher and assistant director: institutional research at the University of the Free State, South Africa. At the Centre for Higher Education Transformation, or CHET, he is responsible for the HERANA Higher Education and Democracy project.


  • 1- Luescher-Mamashela TM, Ssembatya V, Brooks E, Lange RS, Mugume T and Richmond S (2015) “Student Engagement and Citizenship Competences”. In: N Cloete, P Maassen and T Bailey (eds), Knowledge Production and Contradictory Functions in African Higher Education. Cape Town: African Minds.
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