Priorities of new ‘African university’ lack substance
In this article, based on research conducted for a Human Sciences Research Council study on the impact of the Mastercard Foundation’s support for higher education development in Africa, the strategies of six institutions are analysed.
The new universities are Sol Plaatje University (SPU) in Kimberley, the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and the University of Mpumalanga (UM, in Mbombela), and the Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University (SMU, in Pretoria) in South Africa; the Pan African University (PAU) established as a continent-wide institution; Pwani University (PU) in the Kilifi County in Kenya; the Botswana Open University (BOU) in Gaborone; the University of Rwanda (UR) in Kigali; Midlands State University (MSU) in Gweru, Zimbabwe; and Covenant University (CU) in Ota, Nigeria.
The universities, with the exception of CU, are largely public and were all brought into being after 2000 except for MSU, which was chartered in 1999. The youngest is the BOU, which was established in 2017.
In undertaking this analysis, it is important to emphasise how concerned key higher education scholars are about the contemporary African higher education landscape.
In 2004 Dr Adebayo Olukoshi, director for Africa and West Asia at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), and Professor Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, associate provost at Case Western Reserve University in the United States – both prominent leaders on the continent – identified 12 critical issues facing the universities.
These included institutional autonomy, the democratisation of university governance, diversifying funding sources, improving research output, balancing basic and applied research, addressing the challenge of the information age, forging stronger relationships with other knowledge-producing institutions, and making the task of keeping up with and contributing to knowledge production as a priority.
How, against this backdrop, the university in Africa has imagined its future is important to describe and analyse. To begin with, it is interesting that only a few of the universities described their situations explicitly. Of those that did, the UM, established in 2013, said that it was “an African university that is rooted in its home in Mpumalanga and, as such, it is responsive to its immediate political, socio-economic, geographic and historic context, and its place in the world”.
For the rest, explicit identity markers which gave one a sense of the ecologies in which institutions were operating were rarely provided.
In terms of achievements, while a few institutions were concrete, most pointed to the number of students they had graduated and, without providing empirical detail, their excellent performance. Of those that provided details, the UJ said that the institution, established in 2005, had “forged an identity unique among local and international universities, as a well-performing institution …
“It is pleasing to note, however, that, despite these many challenges, the university continued with its excellent performance, and surpassed all its key strategic targets for the last couple of years.”
Strengths mentioned by the institutions fell into two categories: the strengths of the contexts in which they found themselves, and the attributes and qualities they had, in their short histories, been able to develop such as “stable environments” and the attraction of “high-quality” staff. UJ drew attention to the recognition that it had won, including its positioning by the authoritative Quacquarelli Symonds, or QS, World University Rankings as being among the top 4% of universities in the world, and among the top 1% of universities in the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).
The strategic plans, notably, made little reference to weaknesses. Among the few that were mentioned were staff-student ratios, “inadequate star researchers”, low citation rates, low quality of administrative staff, low-quality ICT, weak staff commitment, dependence on government funding, low fees and poor student debt collection strategies, long-term financial sustainability, infrastructure and the brain drain. Retaining high-performing staff was clearly a challenge for many institutions.
Striking about the institutions’ visions was their ambitious scope. Institutions committed themselves to extensive infrastructural development, the renewal, of residence accommodation, expansion of facilities such as libraries and sports fields, the revision of their curricula, and the expansion of their enrolments.
Projecting themselves into the mid-2000s, they all said that they would be fit and capable for the demands of the 21st century. Significantly, however, the issues that led to Olukoshi’s and Zeleza’s dire conclusions received very little attention. Almost predictably, their strategic plans were full of “vision”. The term, ‘vision’, appeared over 180 times. That which followed, interestingly, was ‘world-class’. It appeared 82 times. ‘Relevance’ appeared 42 times.
Notably, none of the institutions’ visions mentions their home countries. Only one, RU, references the local context. The first geographical marker for the institutions is the world. While Africa does come to inflect interpretations of how three institutions suggest they will be “leading”, most project themselves into the internationalising arena and draw on referents that are common in the globalising vocabularies of what it means to be excellent.
Three exceptions to this are those of RU, MU and SMU, the first two strongly so and the second distinctly weakly. RU, importantly, draws attention to the issue of “quality of life”. More pointedly, MU elaborates on why its vision to be distinctly African is important.
It says, “Being an ‘African university’ does not merely refer to (its) geographical location but more so to its character and identity being informed, firstly, by an African paradigm of indigenous knowledge, culture and life orientation and, secondly, also by a broadly Western paradigm of knowledge, culture and life orientation.”
Not unexpectedly, research features as the primary mission of the new universities. What kind of research it is to be is specified relatively tightly in the statements of CU, PAU, RU, SPU and MU. Constructed as these statements are in different registers, their objective is largely that of social improvement. CU aims to “restore the dignity of the Black man ... and promote integrated, life-applicable, life-transforming education”.
RU’s mission is to “discover … and advance … knowledge” for the purpose of “finding solutions”. They also emphasise that their mission is “nation-centred”: “The University community is compelled to be compassionate in the services it renders, and this demands commitment, sensitivity, selfless service, courage, understanding and care.” SPU wants to “produce new knowledge (which will) impact … on key challenges of the region”. MU explains that its research is aimed at “foster[ing] the holistic development of students”.
Of interest is the way in which the institutions respond to the responsibility of teaching and learning. CU view their teaching and learning as “innovative and leading-edge”. RU aims to make their “students prepared for lives of service, and leadership”. The theme is mentioned six times but is, notably, not given substance.
The term ‘development’ arises five times in the mission statements. At UJ, it is aimed at “humanity”. At PU it is aimed at the community which the university serves. CU emphasised the necessity for connecting with the communities around them.
Evident in these missions is a generalised lack of specificity. While there is an appreciation for the context in which institutions find themselves and some attempt to respond to it, at the same time they appear to struggle with the task of defining how they will give expression to their core tasks of research, and teaching and learning, and what it is about this core that is distinct.
As the foregoing analysis suggests, institutions, even in their newness, struggle to articulate strategic plans that meet Olukoshi’s and Zeleza’s implicit standards of global excellence that are rooted in locally relevant priorities. Two important casualties of the preoccupation institutions have with international recognition are teaching and learning and the question of development.
While institutions’ strategic plans have substantial sections devoted to the question of teaching and learning that often include progressive objectives, these are seldom given substance. Exceptions to this generality are evident in the plans of CU and MU.
Teaching and learning are referenced 132 times in CU’s plan. They say that they will have senior staff actively working with students supported by tutorials, but even these intentions, especially in the case of CU, are diluted in intensity by the desire to match what is offered in the world’s elite universities. No mention is made of the contexts from which students come.
Most striking about this issue – and this is important in understanding the difficulty these new institutions have in grasping the significance of the opportunities which lie before them – is the complete misrecognition of the centrality of the undergraduate experience. Almost instinctively, the institutions assume the identity of the research university.
The second casualty is the loss of the opportunity institutions have of thinking about their development responsibilities to the country and the continent. While some of the institutions present themselves as role-players in their countries’ national development agendas, and while reference is made to continental and global mandates such as Agenda 2063 and the sustainable development goals, these are seldom explained. The institutions are unable to locate themselves in the contexts in which they find themselves.
Evident here, it is suggested, is a tendency for institutions to disembed themselves from their local contexts. Institutions do not always specify in their visions what their relevance is all about. They are clearly aware that the exercise of producing a strategic plan has to signal the quality of being excellent. They almost never, however, give contextualised content to the standard.
Crain Soudien is emeritus professor of education and African studies at the University of Cape Town, an honorary professor at Nelson Mandela University and a distinguished visiting professor at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. This article is the fifth in a series based on the chapters of the 2023 book Creating the New African University.