AFRICA: Developing students as democratic citizens

African countries should initiate dialogue among government, student leaders, and university managers and professionals on student development as a pathway to democratic citizenship-building on the continent, new research has proposed.

There should be in-depth investigations into democratic best practice regarding student development, and especially student leadership development, with the findings presented in handbooks for use by student development professionals in African universities.

Further, there is a need to study of the role of youth, especially students, and members of universities in the current political transitions in West and North Africa, to contribute towards a "deeper understanding of the role of students in democratisation processes in Africa".

So says The University in Africa and Democratic Citizenship: Hothouse or training ground?, an upcoming report based on student surveys conducted at flagship institutions in three countries - the universities of Nairobi in Kenya, Cape Town in South Africa and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.

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.

Authored by Thierry M Luescher-Mamashela, a post-doctoral researcher 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 report also suggests extending surveys of students and democracy to other African universities.

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

The study 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 looks at the findings on student representation and university governance.

Politics, governance and students

There was considerable representation of students at all levels of university management and life at all three universities, but there were also significant differences between students, politics and governance.

All three universities had experienced periods of turmoil, with students agitating against political issues such as lack of democracy, human rights or corruption, student organisations banned and student leaders arrested, charged and expelled - in Kenya, even forced into exile or killed.

At Nairobi, although no registered branches of political parties operate on campus, university politics is deeply divided along party lines, and parties sponsor students for elections. Since 2002 there has been relative tranquility in terms of student activism, thanks mainly to a "spirit of dialogue between management and the student organisation".

Ethnically-based student associations have limited students' capacity to unite into a strong organisation, and the introduction of cost-sharing in the late 1990s had the effect of encouraging students to act as isolated individuals.

Today, the study found, students' main concern is to complete their degree and leave, without the distractions of student activism, although for a minority student leadership "can be a stepping stone into national politics" and offers financial benefits and trappings of power.

At Cape Town, student politics is dominated by student branches of political parties and national student organisations. There are also formal and informal student groups that politically mobilise students around topical issues.

Students are highly active, and engaged in debates on internal university as well as national political issues. There have not been "serious or violent confrontations" between student groups or students and other groups on the Cape Town campus for years, says the study, and student politics "has become a rather timid and conventional affair".

The close involvement of the Tanzanian state in university governance has meant student leadership has tended to focus on engaging directly with top government officials "and conversely, student activism tends to trigger high-level government response".

At Dar es Salaam, self-funded 'private' students were admitted from the mid-1990s and student dissatisfaction with what they see as an unfair student loans system has led to recurring protests and university closures, student organisations being banned and student leaders expelled, including in the months before the survey.

Some findings

The study assumed that extra-curricular student development and student governance could help instill and support democratic values and practices. It asked whether students perceived this to be the case, and their views on their university, its governance and student representation in university governance. The mains findings were that:

* Most students at all three universities looked to the university "to provide them with the kind of qualification that will enable them to find quality employment and to provide them with an education of the highest international standard. They saw the university first and foremost as an academic facility and a community of learning." A sizeable group also saw a developmental mandate for the university (most at Dar es Salaam, least at Cape Town).

* Students had a "rather enlightened view of university governance". They preferred the university to be governed representatively, with decisions made predominantly by internal constituencies (senior management, academics and students) rather than by government.

More than 80% of students rejected the suggestion that student involvement in decision-making was a waste of time. Almost as many supported student representation at all levels of university decision-making. But the idea that students should have 'the predominant voice and run the university responsive to student interests' "struggled to gain a majority" at Nairobi and Dar es Salaam and was supported by only a third of Cape Town students.

* Support for representative university governance and democratic student representation "comes in a context of student dissatisfaction with the way student representation actually works as well as relatively high levels of distrust in student leadership and perceptions of student leadership corruption," says the study.

There was a crisis of legitimacy of student representation at Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. At Nairobi, fewer than 20% of students were satisfied with the way student representation worked, and only 26% considered the last student election free and fair. The situation was only a little better at Dar es Salaam - 24% and 27% respectively. At Cape Town, just over half of students considered student representation adequate.

Also, student leaders were among the least trusted groups on campuses, and were "perceived as more corrupt than management and academics". At Nairobi, only 19% of students trusted student leaders and more than 70% thought most or all were corrupt. At Dar es Salaam, half of students did not trust their leaders, and 30% thought student leadership was corrupt. At Cape Town, nearly 80% of students trusted management, 90% trusted academics and 58% trusted student leaders. Only 16% of students perceived student leaders as corrupt.

* "The disjuncture between students' demand for representative university governance and democratic student representation on the one hand, and student perception of the supply of democratic student governance on the other hand, along with their displayed lack of trust and faith in student leadership, offer an opportunity for rethinking student participation in university governance."

Implications and conclusions

University administrations in Africa have often responded severely to student activism, by calling in the police, criminalising leaders, closing campuses or banning student bodies. An alternative strategy has been to incorporate or co-opt student leaders into university decision-making. Or a combination of the two.

"In most cases, the objective of the university's response is to discourage and de-emphasise mass participation of students in political activity and to sanitise student leaders' involvement in politics on- and off-campus. This is done in the name of restoring and maintaining a peaceful academic environment conducive to learning," says the study.

But an environment in which a sprinkling of students is co-opted into enjoying the spoils of office, while most are politically de-activated and only mobilised occasionally by student leaders for their own purposes, is not conducive to students learning to take up rights and responsibilities of democratic citizenship, or how to exert democratic leadership in civil society.

"The student governance surveys suggest that to depoliticise the university and sanitise student politics is to lose out on the very vehicle which African universities can use to make a key contribution to the democratisation of political culture," the study says.

"It is precisely by enhancing student involvement in collective political and non-political activity and supporting student leadership in a variety of organisational contexts, that the university can make a contribution to democratic citizenship."

The surveys found strong correlations between students' participation in politics on- and off-campus, and that types of political participation on- and off-campus were often the same. This "pointed towards a possibility of a student pathway to leadership in civil society".

Student demand for representative, democratic governance was seemingly thwarted by the way it was perceived to work. But lack of trust in student leadership and perceptions of corruption also offered an opportunity to re-think the way student representation works.

"Looking at the training ground potential of the university, these findings suggest greater involvement of the university management and academics in making student representation work for students, rather than less," says the study.

"This does not mean micro-managing student government. Rather it suggests that by empowering students and student leaders to make their contribution to the university in more democratic and effective ways, the university can make a significant contribution to citizenship development."

The report suggests various effective and inexpensive strategies.

Training could focus on leadership responsibilities in formal settings, such as developing a mission and purpose for an organisation, democratically choosing leaders, evaluating and supporting leaders, ensuring good management, being accountable for financial resources, monitoring institutional development and transformation, being responsible for ensuring a good campus environment, and developing and preserving institutional autonomy.

"Developing a consensus on the operational and organisational parameters of student activity and politics should be set in consultation with student leadership along with policies as to the rules by which certain organisations are allowed to operate on campus," says the study.

Consideration should be given to whether some external groups should be encouraged to establish student branches, such as Doctors without Borders, and student organisations that reached out charitably beyond campus might deserve special assistance and support from student development offices.

Student entrepreneurship could provide opportunities for special support and attention from university management acting as an honest (but disinterested) broker. Sports clubs, artistic, recreational and academic bodies, and students unions and governments, offered the organisational context for students to learn leadership capacities.

Finally, support for a regular and high quality student news medium "published in a context of responsible free speech and freedom of the press on campus and accessible to all members of the campus community should be a priority," the study concludes.

"In short, the potential of the university acting as a training ground for democratic citizenship can be actualised and enhanced by strengthening student development in various student organisational and leadership contexts through specific training as well as targeted support."