Manuel Castells – Inspiring fundamental change

For the past two years, the violent student protests associated with the ‘Fees Must Fall’ movement in South Africa have been a strong reminder of the unique paradox that has characterised the country’s higher education system since the end of apartheid. On the one hand, South Africa’s top universities are the most advanced in the entire continent in terms of their capacity to train doctoral students and the international visibility of their research production.

On the other hand, the South African higher education system has remained one of the most segmented and unequal systems in Africa, despite the efforts of the successive democratic governments to expand access in an equitable manner. Today, even though the black population accounts for 80% of all South Africans, only 16% of black South Africans go to college, compared to 55% of whites.

Against this background, Castells in Africa: Universities and Development edited by Johan Muller, Nico Cloete and François van Schalkwyk, is a welcome addition to the academic literature on the role of higher education in South Africa and Africa. This book, which traces the history of Castells' visits to South Africa over the past 17 years and the intellectual influence of his work, highlights his most important publications on the functions of universities in the African context.

Four key functions

Building on the scholarly contribution of great thinkers like Humboldt and Clark Kerr, Castells analyses the evolution of the four key functions performed by universities. The first one is ideological, reflecting the traditional role of transmitting the values that help legitimise the existing social order. The second role is that of selection of the elites and formation of networks to ensure social cohesion. Training the labour force is the third role performed by universities in support of the state bureaucracy and the professional needs of the economy. Knowledge generation and dissemination (research) is the last function.

Castells carefully analyses the challenge faced by universities as they have tried over time to manage these four functions, which can often be contradictory in nature.

The influence of Castells’ writings was not felt only in Third World countries; his work shed light on recent developments in industrial economies as well. He examined how, as a result of global pressures in a world increasingly driven by knowledge and innovation, the role of the state has evolved into what he calls the ‘networked state’, reflecting the need to develop the informational infrastructure for the 21st century and train the indispensable human capital.

If we take seriously the notion that we live in a global knowledge economy and in a society based on processing information – as universities primarily are – then the quality, effectiveness and relevance of the university system will be directly related to the ability of people, society and institutions to develop.

Beyond influencing policy-makers and researchers in the countries themselves, Castells’ Weltanschauung and the analytical model that he articulated in the early 1990s were also instrumental in shaping the policy framework of major donor agencies such as the World Bank. For example, the 1991 paper, Higher Education: The lessons of experience that he wrote on the role of universities in development, and the contradictory functions that they embody, had a significant sway on the first higher education strategy paper published in 1994 by that organisation.

Castells inspired a fundamental change in the World Bank’s approach to higher education, which moved from a narrow focus on basic education to a more holistic approach that recognises the value of higher education as an important pillar of sustainable development, which plays an essential developmental role by creating, disseminating and applying knowledge and building technical and professional capacity. Other donor agencies, such as the UK’s DFID, followed suit.

Castells as pioneer

Castells was a pioneer in many respects. He was one of the first sociologists to write about the importance of knowledge generation and innovation, many years before the term ‘knowledge economy’ was coined. He studied how the spread of technology has shaped the distribution and concentration of power in modern societies. He also foresaw the rise of the networked society, long before the invention of Facebook and social media.

Reflecting on global developments in the past 10 years, Castells identifies three trends that, together, significantly affect the situation and the role of universities. First, the 2008 financial crisis has shown the importance and the volatility of global financial markets that are increasingly at the core of national and international economies. Second, the weak responses of states confronted with the financial crisis have challenged their policy-making legitimacy. Third, the acceleration of the technology revolution in three key areas, namely information technology, biology and biotechnologies, and communication, have amplified the importance of knowledge generation and management, thereby accentuating even further the developmental role of higher education and the importance of research universities.

This book is unique in many ways. First it documents Castells’ intellectual footprint by presenting the main messages of his three public lectures in South Africa and their influence on the country’s policymakers. Second, it presents a sample of Castells’ most important writings. Finally, it contains several chapters based on seminal works by African and associated higher education scholars who have applied Castells’ concepts to investigate the challenges faced by African universities and their role in knowledge production.

The book showcases, in particular, the innovative work of the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa, or HERANA, which investigated the relationship between economic development and higher education, with a focus on the emergence and strengthening of research universities in the eight participating countries.

The HERANA researchers adapted Castells’ framework to examine the evolution of Sub-Saharan African universities from four complementary and sometimes contradictory perspectives: the university as ancillary (a narrow focus on training civil servants and professionals), the university as a self-governing institution, the university as an instrument of the development agenda and, finally, the university as an engine of development.

Elite formation

One of the main findings of the investigation was that, with the exception of the University of Cape Town in South Africa, leading universities in other African countries have found it difficult to move away from their traditional undergraduate teaching role and build up their research capacity. This result confirms Castells’ observation that African universities have focused on elite formation rather than striving to make a sustainable contribution to knowledge production.

Some of the chapters also analyse the absence of science and technology policies in most Sub-Saharan African countries, the lack of alignment between official government declarations about the importance of higher education and actual funding allocations, and the need for increased institutional differentiation to allow flagship universities to deepen their research core. They review as well the evolving philosophy and influence of donor agencies in relation to capacity building efforts in the African university sector.

In conclusion, Muller, Cloete and Van Schalkwyk should be congratulated for producing this outstanding book, which offers invaluable insights into Castells’ work and provides a relevant analytical framework to understand recent developments in African higher education and identify the high stakes confronting political and university leaders.

South African President Jacob Zuma’s recent decision to endorse the students’ demand for tuition-fee-free higher education is a good illustration of the tensions and contradictions arising from the competing functions fulfilled by African universities. While the decision will be difficult to sustain from a financial viewpoint and may adversely affect the fate of the top research universities in the country, it certainly caters to the social aspirations of millions of South Africans.

Thus, the book is an indispensable reference for policy-makers keen on setting the conditions that would allow universities to make a more meaningful contribution to their countries' development agenda and for higher education researchers studying the evolving role of African universities. As Castells reminds the reader, “higher education institutions are essential for both economic growth and social justice… Populist demagogues hate universities because they are, after all, the bastions of critical thinking and legitimate resistance to abuses… [Universities] also have to protect their mission as beacons of innovation, ideas and equality… ”.

Castells in Africa: Universities and Development is edited by Johan Muller, Nico Cloete and François van Schalkwyk. It is published by African Minds, a not-for-profit, open-access publisher.

Jamil Salmi is a global tertiary education expert, emeritus professor at Diego Portales University in Chile and research fellow at Boston College in the United States. He also served as the coordinator of the World Bank's tertiary education programme.