The Role of African Universities in Agenda 2030

Empowering women and decolonising the academy

Power and the politics of knowledge
Ashraf Hendricks
©GROUNDUP
Hanne K. Adriansen's picture
June 16th, 2017

Hanne Adriansen is the International Coordinator and an Associate Professor at the Department of Education, Aarhus University, Denmark. Originally trained as a human geographer, her research interests include spatial aspects of education and knowledge production as well as the internationalisation of higher education. She has extensive fieldwork experience in West and North Africa where she has worked in close collaboration with local universities and other research institutions. Prof. Adriansen has participated in a number of research capacity-building projects in Africa and Asia. Her current research projects concern geographies of knowledge and place-making through student mobilities. She is the co-editor of Higher Education and Capacity Building in Africa: The Geography and Power of Knowledge under Changing Conditions (2016) published by Routledge.

I recently attended a dinner for speakers at a conference in an African capital. I had expected to meet all the speakers, but it turned out only to be for the chosen few. Sitting there, I could not help wondering how we had been selected. It was clear that the number of white faces exceeded the black ones – interesting considering the purpose of the conference was to discuss the future role of African universities. Needless to say, the majority was men. This was an interesting example of the power and politics of knowledge, and there were many other examples during the conference – both as deliberate academic contributions and in the practices of hosting a conference. I will argue that, if we address the power and politics of knowledge, African universities and higher education can play a more powerful role in “transforming our world” and empower women.

Writing from the vantage point of a white, female researcher who has studied Africa for almost 20 years, I will draw on my experiences as well as my research to explore the role of African universities in reaching the goals of Agenda 2030, with a particular focus on women.
Agenda 2030 and universities In the UN (2016) document, “Transforming our world: The 2030 Agenda for sustainable development”, quality education, lifelong learning as well as gender equality and empowerment of women are high on the list of priorities. Universities and higher education, however, receive little attention (one and two hits respectively). The word “research” is mentioned eight times in the document, most often in relation to higher education. It may thus seem odd to focus on higher education in relation to Agenda 2030 and women in this article. Nonetheless, I have chosen this perspective because I find higher education institutions in general and universities in particular important for achieving the goals of Agenda 2030.

Universities have two main objectives: to educate students and to produce knowledge. Hence, universities play a major role in procuring the human and intellectual resources needed for fulfilling the various goals of Agenda 2030. In the following, I will focus on the role of universities in relation to two of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the overall perspective on sustainable development.

SDG 4, “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” (UN-DESA, 2016a), includes ambitions to eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education including university. Education should, among other things, ensure the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development and lead to an appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development. In order to do so, there is a need for well-trained teachers, who can offer an appreciation of local knowledge and of all experiences, including those of African women – something that can be difficult if schooling is based on a colonial curriculum and the language of the coloniser.

SDG 5, “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” (UN-DESA, 2016b), is related to SDG 4 in a number of ways, but SDG 5 also focusses on policies and legislation that can promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls at all levels. There should be equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life. To ensure women’s full and effective participation in society, there is a need to empower women and girls. This is where education and the politics of knowledge are necessary. Attending school is not enough if the knowledge offered there is not something girls and women can relate to.
Quite a few of the goals are related to the environment, climate and resource management. The discourse of the document implies that sustainable development requires knowledge. Environment, climate, and resource management in particular call for scientific knowledge and research. Local knowledge is mentioned a few times in the document in a manner similar to the sentences about being appreciative of cultural diversity and culture’s contribution to sustainable development. Altogether this calls for the production of new knowledge both through research and teaching at universities and other higher education institutions. Hence, while research and higher education are sparingly mentioned in the Agenda 2030 document, the discourse of the document implies a strong need for universities in order to fulfil the aspirations.

Power and the politics of knowledge

It is interesting to see the growing number of academic conferences and journal articles discussing the power and politics of knowledge in Africa. While there have been African institutions of learning for over 1 000 years, the most evident type of higher education on the continent today has its roots in colonial-era institutions (Jensen, Adriansen & Madsen, 2016). Franz Fanon, a Martinique-born, Afro-French psychiatrist, philosopher and revolutionary, wrote about the colonisation of the mind some 50 years ago. Fanon (1968) argues that the colonised have adopted the colonisers’ historical perspective, using the concept “colonial identification” to denote this and similar tendencies whereby the colonised take on the perspective of the colonisers.

Independence in Africa did not necessarily change very much. For many years, African intellectuals have argued that African universities and school systems in general reproduce(d) their colonial legacy, for instance, through curriculum and language.

the colonised have adopted the colonisers’ historical perspective, using the concept “colonial identification” to denote this and similar tendencies whereby the colonised take on the perspective of the colonisers.

The Beninese philosopher Paulin Hountondji (1990) and the Kenyan political scientist Ali Mazrui (2003) have both pointed to the intellectual and epistemological dependency of African scholars. The Ugandan social scientist Mahmood Mamdani (1993, p. 15) argues:

In our single-minded pursuit to create centres of learning and research of international standing, we had nurtured researchers and educators who had little capacity to work in surrounding communities but who could move to any institution in any industrialised country, and serve any privileged community around the globe with comparative ease. In our failure to contextualise standards and excellence to the needs of our own people, to ground the very process and agenda of learning and research in our conditions, we ended up creating an intelligentsia with little stamina for the very process of development whose vanguard we claimed to be.
The question is if African universities are still suffering from some sort of colonialisation of the mind.1 As a European, I should not be the one to judge. However, knowledge production is not neutral, objective, or power free.

African women’s narratives about their journeys in academia show us how the power and politics of knowledge are intrinsically linked to gender. In her chapter, “My knowledge, your knowledge, whose knowledge is it? Reflections from a researcher’s journey through universities in North and South”, the Zimbabwean researcher Bevlyn Sithole (2016, p. 188) writes: “My gender, race and historical experience situate my interpretation of the life journey within a cultural political space where the discourse of domination and imperialism is never far away.” Sithole discusses the location of scholarship and ownership of knowledge. She tells of how an African scholar asked if she – as an African scholar in the diaspora – could legitimately represent Africa. Sithole (2016) wonders who has the right to speak on behalf of Africa. Is location important? I may add, what is the importance of colour and gender?

For the South African educationalist Thabisile Nkambule, access to university and to certain courses is the main issue. As a black woman from a “disadvantaged” background (black, rural, woman), access to university in post-apartheid times is still far from easy (Nkambule, 2014). Her father disapproved of her idea of going to university; he did so by referring to her gender and the risk of falling pregnant. Apparently, gender and potential pregnancy were not a problem at teacher’s college where her father wanted her to study. Nkambule found that her father objected to the idea of his daughter obtaining a postgraduate degree. While Nkambule managed to attend university, her rural background continued to be a challenge as the white male professors and white female tutors had certain ideas about suitable subjects for students coming from previously disadvantaged backgrounds. First, they questioned her ability to study psychology; then it was her ability to study English. A tutor said to her that English was a difficult course to pass for somebody from a township school and suggested she studied Xhosa instead. Later, it was Nkambule’s competencies to become a researcher which were questioned because she did not match the cultural practices of the predominantly white university. The obstacles Nkambule met seem to relate to race rather than gender at university, which is no surprise in a South African context. However, gender was an issue in the socio-cultural context she grew up in. Similar experiences can probably be found in many rural African contexts.

Thus, power and politics of knowledge entail race, gender, history, and other considerations; which means issues of colonialism, imperialism and dominance are never far away. The two women’s narratives also show that it is not always simple to determine who exercises power over whom and when. For Sithole, dominance is also seen when researchers take ownership over communities’ knowledge, and she highlights the importance of co-producing knowledge: “Co-production of knowledge between scientists and communities is a prerequisite for research aiming at a more sustainable development path” (Sithole, 2016, pp 180-181). Thereby we return to the issue of Agenda 2030. How can we produce knowledge of local relevance and include the perspectives and cultures of the people? How can we, as stated in SDG 4, build the knowledge needed to promote sustainable development and appreciate culture’s contribution to sustainable development? Mamdani (1993) has argued that contextualised understandings can be a way forward if we want to produce knowledge with local relevance.

Contextualised understandings of climate

Climate change is a significant problem for the African continent. It is mentioned in Agenda 2030 multiple times beyond SDG 13 which calls for “urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts” (UN-DESA, 2016c). This field demands contextualised understandings in order for locally relevant and suitable solutions to be developed. All too often, localised methods and theories from the Global North are portrayed as universal methods and theories, and they are therefore transferred to an African context without recognising their particularity.

The Senegalese climate change researcher Cheikh Mbow has explained the difficulties in conducting valuable climate change research when scientific knowledge production is based on particular theories and methods that are presented as universal rather than context-specific. Mbow (in Adriansen, Mehmood-Ul-Hassan & Mbow, 2016) argues that well-informed citizens, responsive institutions, and problem-focused knowledge generation are imperative to achieving sustainable development and that universities in Africa clearly have a vital role to play.

As the North-Irish geographer David Livingstone (2012) points out, climate knowledge is not self-evident, universal or reliable and, therefore, we need to seek discrete, specific knowledge applicable to a spatial location. In other words, we need to attend to individual and community experiences of climate:

What climate means to people is conditioned by the places people occupy, the histories they share, the cultural values they absorb. Presumptions about what the idea of climate change must – or should – mean to people fall foul of precisely this careful interrogation of particularity (Livingstone, 2012, pp 92-93).

We should add gender to Livingstone’s list of contextualised understandings. Hence, the ability to attend to both men and women’s experiences of climate, through inquiring into the particular, the specific and the spatially located, is pertinent for African universities if they want to produce the research called for in Agenda 2030.

Universality of knowledge and Africanisation of curriculum

Along with the so-called African renaissance (an increased optimism and self-awareness on the continent), there has been a new consciousness about the historical roots of higher education. It has been argued that it is necessary to decolonise the academy, for instance, through an Africanisation of the curriculum (Adriansen, 2016). Africanisation can be understood as a focus on African knowledge, ways of thinking, cultural heritage, and identity.2 In higher education institutions, the process of Africanisation has not been easy due to the claim that knowledge is universal (Jensen et al., 2016).

The debate about Africanisation of curriculum and knowledge production further relates to the debate on universities’ role as local drivers of sustainable development with regard to internationalisation and competition as increasing demands of the global knowledge economy (Adriansen, 2016).3 Can a university be locally relevant, focussing its teaching and research on local needs while remaining involved in global competition with an increasing emphasis on homogeny?

It has been argued that capacity-building activities and donor control of project development processes are causing a renewed curriculum dependency (Brock-Utne, 2002). These are the kind of projects we are likely to see as a result of Agenda 2030. Having participated in capacity-building projects myself, I would argue that decolonisation of knowledge and methodology is necessary in higher education.4 The question is how it can be done. The first step is to pay attention to the apparent universality of knowledge. In the words of the Indian author and activist Vandana Shiva (2012, p. 9):

The western systems have been viewed as universal. However, the dominant system is also a local system, with its social basis in a particular culture, class and gender. It is not universal in an epistemological sense. It is merely the globalised version of a very local and parochial tradition. Emerging from a dominating and colonising culture, modern knowledge systems are themselves colonising.

While I agree with Shiva, I will also warn against moving towards a complete Africanisation of curriculum and knowledge production. The dilemma is that this may entail an unproductive essentialisation of the “African”, for example, who the African is, where the African lives, and what the African can study. The two narratives presented above are both cases in point. Sithole experienced being questioned about her legitimacy as an African scholar because she lives in the diaspora. Moreover, Nkambule’s abilities to study English were questioned because she is black. Hence, I would argue that we should try to contextualise knowledge and pay attention to the difference between universal knowledge and dominant knowledge, yet we should also acknowledge that, without ideas about universality, universal human experiences and human rights, Agenda 2030 would never be realised.

The role of African universities in Agenda 2030

So, how can African universities contribute to realising the aspirations of Agenda 2030? African education will not reach its transformative potential through the mindless transfer of knowledge, theories and methods from other parts of the world (primarily from the North). This will reproduce dependency. Instead, empowerment of women and sustainable development require that more contextualised knowledge be produced. We need to analyse the power and politics of knowledge. It is necessary to differentiate between dominant knowledge and universal knowledge and, through this, decolonise the African academy. Acknowledgement of local knowledge can lead to the empowerment of people, but Africanisation of curriculum and knowledge production is needed without essentialising the African.

At the dinner I attended, the future role of African universities was debated. The highly ranked African professors around the table were occupied with building centres of excellence in Africa, so the continent could be globally competitive. During the next days of the conference, however, quite a number of the African scholars (not invited to the dinner) argued that global ranking meant little to the average African woman struggling to make ends meet. Those scholars wanted to focus on local relevance and the transformative potential of higher education. I understand them and hope that African universities can join forces in solving the continent’s problems instead of joining the “competition fetish” – maybe through joint forces they can make transformative education which can lead to the empowerment of women and sustainable development?

NOTES

  1. The expression is from Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Decolonizing the Mind (1987) in which he explores the dominance of Eurocentric theories and language in African education systems.
  2. An example of how this can be done and some of the dilemmas Africanisation entails can be found in Naidoo, Adriansen and Madsen’s (2016) analysis of the teaching at Khanya College in Johannesburg, South Africa.
  3. Please refer to Naidoo (2016) for an analysis of the consequences of the “competition fetish” in higher education.
  4. Several analyses of capacity-building projects in African higher education can be found in Adriansen, Madsen and Jensen (2016).

REFERENCES

  1. Adriansen HK (2016) Can African universities deliver knowledge for ‘Transforming our World’ without decolonizing the academy? Norrag Blog, 20 June. (accessed 1 February 2017).
  2. Adriansen HK, Madsen LM & Jensen S (2016) Higher Education and Capacity Building in Africa: The geography and power of knowledge under changing conditions. Derby: Routledge.
  3. Adriansen HK, Mehmood-Ul-Hassan M & Mbow C (2016) “Producing scientific knowledge in Africa today: Auto-ethnographic insights from a climate change researcher.” In Adriansen HK, Madsen LM & Jensen S (Eds.), Higher Education and Capacity Building in Africa: The geography and power of knowledge under changing conditions (pp 124-146). Derby: Routledge.
  4. Brock-Utne B (2002) Whose Education For All? The Recolonization of the African Mind. New York: Falmer Press.
  5. Fanon F (1968) The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.
  6. Hountondji PJ (1990) Scientific dependence in Africa today. Research in African Literatures, 21(3): 5-15.
  7. Jensen S, Adriansen HK & Madsen LM (2016) “Do ‘African’ universities exist? Setting the scene.” In Adriansen HK, Madsen LM & Jensen S (Eds.), Higher Education and Capacity Building in Africa: The geography and power of knowledge under changing conditions (pp 12-37). Derby: Routledge.
  8. Livingstone DN (2012) Reflections on the cultural spaces of climate. Climatic Change, 113(1): 91-93.
  9. Mamdani M (1993) University crisis and reform: a reflection on the African experience. Review of African Political Economy, 20(58): 7-19.
  10. Naidoo R (2016) The competition fetish in higher education: Varieties, animators and consequences. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 37(1): 1-10.
  11. Naidoo R, Adriansen HK & Madsen LM (2016) “Creating an African university: Struggling for a transformational curriculum in apartheid South Africa.” In Adriansen HK, Madsen LM & Jensen S (Eds.), Higher Education and Capacity Building in Africa: The geography and power of knowledge under changing conditions (pp 193-215). Derby: Routledge.
  12. Nkambule T (2014) Against all odds: The role of “community cultural wealth” in overcoming challenges as a black African woman. South African Journal of Higher Education, 28(6): 1999-2012.
  13. Shiva V (2012) Monocultures of the Mind – Perspectives on Biodiversity and Biotechnology. Penang: Third World Network.
  14. Sithole B (2016) “My knowledge, your knowledge, whose knowledge is it? Reflections from a researcher’s journey through universities in North and South.” In Adriansen HK, Madsen LM & Jensen S (Eds.), Higher Education and Capacity Building in Africa: The geography and power of knowledge under changing conditions (pp 171-192). Derby: Routledge.
  15. UN (2016) Transforming our world: The 2030 Agenda for sustainable development. New York: UN. (accessed 31 January 2017).
  16. UN-DESA (2016a) Sustainable Development Goal 4. (accessed 31 January 2017).
  17. UN-DESA (2016b) Sustainable Development Goal 5. (accessed 31 January 2017).
  18. UN-DESA (2016c) Sustainable Development Goal 13. (accessed 1 February 2017).
  19. Wa Thiong’o N (1987) Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. London: Currey.

 

About the author(s)

Hanne Adriansen is the International Coordinator and an Associate Professor at the Department of Education, Aarhus University, Denmark. Originally trained as a human geographer, her research interests include spatial aspects of education and knowledge production as well as the internationalisation of higher education. She has extensive fieldwork experience in West and North Africa where she has worked in close collaboration with local universities and other research institutions. Prof. Adriansen has participated in a number of research capacity-building projects in Africa and Asia. Her current research projects concern geographies of knowledge and place-making through student mobilities. She is the co-editor of Higher Education and Capacity Building in Africa: The Geography and Power of Knowledge under Changing Conditions (2016) published by Routledge.

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