Higher education and the challenge of democracy

Upon receiving an honorary degree from the University of Ghana in 2000, former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan said universities should become primary tools for Africa’s development – not only because they can help develop African expertise and enhance analysis of African problems, but because they could strengthen domestic institutions and serve as model environments for good governance, conflict resolution and respect for human rights. Are African universities living up to this challenge?

Chairing a discussion on higher education as a tool for promoting democratic governance – a sub-theme of the recent 14th General Conference of the Association of African Universities held in Accra, Ghana – Dr Emmanuel Akwetey, founding executive director of the Institute for Democratic Governance in Ghana, said it was important that higher education institutions create a climate for public reasoning.

“As Amartya Sen said, democracy is not only about ballots. It is important that in higher education we create a climate for public reasoning. The central issues in a broader understanding of democracy are participation, dialogue and interaction on societal problems,” he said.

While the consensus was that African countries had made significant progress in terms of meeting the requirements of an electoral democracy, substantive and equitable transformation of many societies operating in terms of existing multi-party political systems remained an elusive goal, said Akwetey.

‘The winner takes all’

Dr Josephine Larbi-Apau, director for e-learning management at the Presbyterian University College in Ghana, said she was struck recently by the definition of democracy recently given to her by a graduate student. “His response was: ‘The winner takes all’ … Many other young people share this view,” she said.

Larbi-Apau said young people see social media as a platform on which to engage, rather than social structures. On university campuses students were frequently left out of decision-making processes.

Dr John Kirkland, deputy secretary general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, said while universities could promote democratic governance in several areas, their most important role was to teach students how to think for themselves.

“They need to be able to know how to reach conclusions, how to weigh up alternatives and when faced with alternatives, to treat them with respect. I think this is fundamental to universities. … Universities are formed as places where new ideas generated and existing ideas are challenged in an atmosphere of mutual respect and tolerance … these values are fundamental to democracy and to universities.”

Social inclusion

Other ways in which universities can promote democracy is by fostering social inclusion, he said.

“Clearly democratic systems work better when a higher proportion of the population understands the issues,” Kirkland said, going on to argue the case for outreach programmes and other ways to make university research relevant to a broader audience.

Universities should also “set a good example” of democratic governance in their own structures and decision-making processes, he said.

“Universities can be participative and inclusive. Rather than anarchy, it’s about giving people the opportunity to air their views and actually listening to those views."

Kirkland said teaching students the principles, mechanisms and values of democracy was important, but had to go beyond a simple outline of the way systems work. “Democracy is a complex thing and the last decade may go down in history not as a time when people became more aware of democracy and when it flourished, but actually when its values were questioned, when people started to think: ‘this narrow definition is not something we should impose universally’. In teaching democracy we also have to be clear about its limitations,” he said.

“It is not simply a case of teaching a uniform set of values; it’s about encouraging people to acquire the skills to interpret questions for themselves,” he said.

Freedom of speech

He said the complexity of democracy was recently manifest in the “dilemmas” about freedom of speech in British universities, particularly in the context of increased terrorism threats, which had seen students object to certain speakers making appearances on campuses and government, as part of strategy to prevent terrorism, trying to curtail the rights of people with extreme views which might potentially encourage terror.

“There is no right answer and one that says democracy is the right way forward. All we can do is give people skills to make up their mind for themselves and allow them to express those viewpoints,” said Kirkland.

Concerned about the strain on existing university systems, particularly in Africa, Akwetey challenged the discussants to consider how institutions could employ the intensive teaching methods required to ensure students acquired the skills of critical thinking and engagement in the context of growing student numbers.

Larbi-Apau said she believed students today were increasingly open to learning based on development projects where they were challenged to find solutions to issues facing society, communities or the work environment.

Practical education

“When we look at the African society and education our generation went through, it was more of theoretical education than practical. We gained no transferable skills from the system.

“I would support what has been said: we must develop creative minds. Universities offer unique programmes. How can their products be identified as university students? Can they improve the quality of life of people?"

On the issue of student participation in university governance, former Ghanaian minister of education and former vice-chancellor at the University of Cape Coast, Professor Jane Naana Opoku-Agyemang, argued in favour of including students in all levels of decision-making in institutions.

“If students are part of the decision-making in a university, we will have succeeded in imparting certain values … We may not always agree with their views, but if the environment is created so that students can participate and actively so in every decision, it gives them an option; it’s a reference point."

Referring to the University of Cape Coast, she said students participated in structures all the way up to council level. “Their voices are important,” she said.

Students were supported through a student aid office and were involved in strategies to raise funds to support tuition. The university also introduced an electronic voting system for student elections which has made student elections run more smoothly, she said.

Kirkland agreed that universities had a role to play in nurturing future leaders. However, he said universities were not democracies and “shouldn’t be” because they needed “decisive leadership”.

“But they can create an environment in which to promote the values of democracy such as respect and participation, and that’s critical,” he said.