Universities as gateways to stronger democracies

Democracy is expanding across Africa with 20 countries due to hold presidential, parliamentary or council elections in 2020. However, participation rates in voting, politics and civic engagement – particularly among the youth – are low. Should African universities be promoting political engagement among their students?

According to the latest International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) report on The Global State of Democracy 2019, Africa has experienced “a remarkable democratic expansion in the last few decades, particularly since the early 1990s when many countries in the region introduced multi-party elections”.

However, only nine African countries score among the top 25% in the world on electoral participation, while 16 (33%) have low levels and 23 (47%) have mid-range performance.

Previous Afrobarometer surveys carried out in more than 30 African countries found that African youth “are not fully engaged in formal political processes, such as voting in elections, as well as in more informal modes of engagement, such as meeting with community members and contacting political representatives”.

In other words, there is a “disconnect” between the African continent’s “youth bulge” and democratic processes, a discrepancy that is reinforced by the October 2018 Ibrahim Index of African Governance which found that in the previous five years more than half of Africa’s citizens (56.8%) suffered a decline in their freedom to participate in political processes or join political organisations.

New threats to democracy

According to Michael Khorommbi, researcher on governance, regional integration and peace-building in Africa at the Pan African University Institute for Governance, Humanities and Social Sciences based in Cameroon, there is room for African universities to encourage educators and students to contribute to socio-economic and political development, taking into account “new threats to democracy” such as constitutional coups, corruption, impunity, lack of transparency and media freedom.

“Undoubtedly, universities cannot restrict their role exclusively in training citizens for democratic citizenship and leadership,” he told University World News. However, he said the “surge in post-truth politics and authoritarian leadership” around the world necessitates that universities should try to create a safe environment for a “living dialogue” between university stakeholders, governments and civil society organisations to question and challenge threats to democracy.

“Universities must continue to strive to set Africa's political trajectory by advocating for democratic ideals in an age in which citizens are increasingly becoming disillusioned with democracy,” Khorommbi said.

“Post the third wave of democratisation in the 1990s and the continuing challenges of democratic consolidation on the continent, there should be a political renewal, urgency and vigour in African universities whereby educators and students can engage in collaborative research on what kinds of political reforms are needed to make democracies in their respective contexts more stable.”

Democratic mindset

According to Cassie Barnhardt, associate professor of educational policy and leadership studies at the University of Iowa in the United States, universities can promote democracy “because they are directly involved in the processes of teaching, learning and discovery – all of which require analysis, critique and active deliberation … These habits of mind are the foundation for a democratic mindset.

“When education is done well, students gain knowledge and skills to be effective contributors to their communities.

“Also, as research is pursued, universities have a hand in creating new solutions and technologies for addressing common problems a society faces.”

Barnhardt said her research has revealed that students express “strong commitments” to contributing to their larger community. “However, they are less confident that college has given them the skills for doing so … Therefore, universities would be wise to further provide students with experiences that allow them to practise the skills needed for democratic participation.”

Classroom practice

Barnhardt said in the classroom, professors could, for example, “re-think” assignments and exams to better utilise experiential and problem-based learning approaches to ensure that course content is connected to relevant applications in the community.

“Outside of the classroom, university leaders can commit to the sometimes inconvenient, slow or messy processes of shared governance and decision-making.

“These shared governance processes are essential for teaching and giving students practice with the act of engaging in collective discourse, addressing controversy with civility and implementing collective problem-solving.”

“Finally, campuses can promote democracy by constantly working to be more transparent, ethical, inclusive and equitable in their organisational practices,” Barnhardt said.

“Sometimes campuses will come up short in realising these aims, but being responsive to public scrutiny and improving organisational practices demonstrate that universities are democratic institutions that serve all of society.”

Public mission

Sarah Stitzlein, professor of education at the University of Cincinnati in the United States and co-editor of the Democracy & Education journal, said universities receiving public tax or government funding have a public mission to support the public good and collective well-being.

“This includes sustaining and improving democracy, given that a healthy democracy is in the best interests of the people.

“Even those that do not receive public funding can make a commitment to supporting a thriving society, which typically entails a vibrant democracy.”

Stitzlein argued that universities should develop knowledge about how a democracy works as well as skills for participating in a democracy well.

“While such knowledge includes an understanding of political processes, history and facts about political leaders and parties, skills include the ability to work with others to solve collective problems, deliberate about public issues and dissent against unjust rules or leaders.

“When cultivated in university and practised regularly, these skills become habits that guide citizens’ daily lives and last for years to come,” she said.

Freedom of expression

Professor John Stremlau, based in the department of international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, told University World News that African universities best able to contribute to the development of their nations “thrive under conditions where freedom of expression prevails”.

He said universities in South Africa make major contributions to sustainable democracy, the political foundation for sustainable development.

Pointing to practical steps, Samir Khalaf Abd-El-Aal, research professor at the National Research Centre in Cairo, Egypt, said African universities must put the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance into practice “by defining themselves anew as a public good, a protective space for the promotion of democratic ideals, of the social imagination, civic values and a critically engaged citizenship”.

“African universities must also shift their priorities, practices and culture to strengthen democracy and advance social and political equity.”

International best practice

According to Abd-El-Aal, African universities can learn from international initiatives and best practices such as the US-based Democratic Erosion, a multi-university consortium that helps students and faculty evaluate threats to democracy both at home and abroad through the lens of theory, history and social science.

“African universities must also join forces to establish a regional centre or institute for democracy and higher education to serve as a leading venue for research, resources and advocacy on university student political learning and engagement in democratic practice.”

Abd-El-Aal said the regional centre could cooperate with regional and international organisations such as the African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies in the Gambia, the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa in South Africa, the US-based International Consortium for Higher Education, Civic Responsibility and Democracy and the US-based Foundation for Democracy in Africa in order to carry out democracy-focused research.

Grant Masterson, senior programme manager of governance, institutions and political processes at the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, told University World News that based on his interactions with universities, students and academics in South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and Mauritius, African universities “do well in providing spaces for postgraduate research and exploration” of topics related to the field of democracy, but they (particularly in the social sciences) are lagging behind in the use and incorporation of survey research, quantitative methods and so-called ‘big data’ approaches to understanding democratic issues and issues affecting democracies.

“Much of this work still takes place in the Global North, far from the countries concerned,” said Masterson.

While there are successful partnerships between universities in the Global North and African universities whereby African graduates are given opportunities to amplify their experiences at partner institutions, what is lacking are more lecturers and graduate students from United States, European and Asian universities engaging with African democracies on the ground at African institutes.

“This is where the real impact of such exchange programmes would lie,” he said.