University World News features Student Politics in Africa Book

2016 Student Politics in Africa bookUniversity World News Issue 414 of 22 May 2016 writes:

The new book Student Politics in Africa: Representation and activism highlights trends including a penetration by national politics into student representation and the co-option of student leaders through ‘incentives’. Also, marketisation has led to a dearth of ideology in student politics and new dynamics in institutional governance.

The purpose of the project was to map out and compare across Africa recent changes in the higher education landscape and different models of how students as a collective body are organised on both institutional and national levels; how their interests are aggregated, articulated and intermediated into institutional and national policy processes; and the role of political parties and other social groups in student representation.

The book brings together 18 scholars working on questions of higher education development, governance and student politics in Africa. Most are early career African academics who are using the project to network with peers and hone analytical writing and publishing skills.

The project

Following an open call for proposals in December 2013, we received more than 23 abstracts and eventually draft chapters which we thoroughly reviewed and individually engaged the authors on.

In August 2014, the authors and editors met for a three-day symposium and workshop in Cape Town, South Africa, presenting our respective work, reviewing each other’s contributions, and discussing key cross-cutting issues emanating from them to present in this book and its companion publication, the special issue of the Journal of Student Affairs in Africa entitled “Student Power in Africa” (Vol 3, Issue 1, 2015).

Originally, the core research questions we asked the authors were:

  • How has the expansion of higher education in Africa – the massification of public institutions, admission of private students and in some institutions the creation of ‘parallel’ student bodies, as well as the mushrooming of private institutions across the continent – affected student representation in different countries on systemic and institutional level?
  • How do campus-based and national student representative organisations relate to political parties and-or social groups and cleavages in society – for instance regional, religious, ethnic? How do they uphold organisational autonomy and legitimacy to represent the student voice? Who are their members? Where do they get their financial and other resources? What resources do they have? How do they fare in managing resources to the benefit of students?

We addressed these questions by means of theoretical work, overview chapters on historical developments in student politics in Africa, as well as single-university case studies (as in chapters on student participation in the University of Buea in Cameroon and the University of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia) and comparative studies (such as between Makerere University and the Uganda Christian University in Uganda). In addition, there are several in-depth studies on national student organisations like the National Union of Ghana Students.

Producing new knowledge

The chapters thus represent a combination of collective coordination and discussion and the individual work of authors; they have been developed from original empirical and theoretical studies, engaging with the core questions individually and collaboratively.

Our work has been informed by other projects, including CODESRIA – Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa – investigations into higher education governance, studies by HERANA – Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa – on higher education and democracy, and by the Centre for Higher Education Trust on student leadership, student engagement and citizenship competences in Africa.

We have also been inspired by the special issues on student representation of the European Journal of Higher Education on student representation in Europe (2012) and Studies in Higher Education on student representation in a global perspective (2014).

The project is first and foremost an opportunity to produce new knowledge on the politics of students in Africa.

It is a means to empirically investigate student representation and to further develop key concepts, analytical approaches and theoretical frameworks for studying student representation in Africa and beyond, taking into consideration the different characteristics of higher education systems, institutions and traditions of student representation.

It is not only meant to ‘document’ student representation in African higher education governance at this conjuncture but also to contribute to the growing body of literature focusing on students’ political agency, on institutionalised forms of student political behaviour, and on key questions confronting higher education in Africa against a context of democratic consolidation and higher education massification.

It is quite clear that a common conceptual or theoretical core eludes the topic of student representation. Also, literature surveys show that student representation in higher education governance is largely ignored in African higher education studies. There are national systems and institutions about which much more is known than others, and some student bodies have been studied much more than others. This book goes some way in addressing these gaps.

Broad trends

There are several broad trends discernible from the book’s 12 chapters.

For instance, while student politics and representation in the earlier years was hinged on ideology, the marketisation of African higher education in the last two decades has apparently led to a ‘dearth of ideology’ in student politics.

The two periods of student politics in Africa described in the book show similar histories but different transformations, especially after the experience of structural adjustment in the late 1980s and 1990s. Thus, while there appears to be a ‘grand narrative’ of African student political history, the story gets more interesting and diverse in the debates beyond the 1990s.

Nonetheless, several chapters bring contemporary developments and shifts in institutional governance to the fore that suggest elements of a common present and future.

There are several case studies that show how the marketisation of higher education in Africa, and especially the admission of private (fee-paying) students has brought new dynamics into institutional governance which permeate, with stealth, student participation in governance.

Many chapters showcase the penetration of national politics and growing influence of dominant political parties in student representation. They will continue shaping student politics in Africa in the coming years.

Thus, on the one hand we find a partisan politicisation of student politics on the leadership and organisational level; on the other hand, we observe a ‘de-politicisation’ of the student body in general, led perhaps by the growing influence of private students, involving a certain lack of political engagement or even political apathy.

Finally, identity politics still plays an important role: issues such as ethnicity and religion come out clearly as having impacts, in most cases negative, on student leadership and governance. How different student representative organisations will respond to these developments is likely to further hone typologies of student representative organisations.

Another topic frequently mentioned in the case studies are so-called institutional ‘incentives’ to student leaders – often with the intent to co-opt them rather than to make them more effective representatives of student interest. We therefore paid attention to the organisation of student representation and limitations on autonomy of student representative associations.

The book shows that formal provisions for student representation are not always granted by law, but need to be negotiated and therefore result in very different practices across countries and institutions.

Some questions

This is linked to the question of whether student representatives are perceived as legitimate intermediators of the student interest and honest brokers in negotiating the future of African higher education.

What are we to make of widespread perceptions of corruption? Are they based in actual observed corrupt practices or do they precisely arise from the paternalistic, authoritarian relations that curb student leaders’ influence, rendering student leaders ineffective and unresponsive to students’ concerns?

Several chapters talk to the dynamic interaction between student protest and student representation – on institutional and national levels. To what extent is the former a symptom of the ineffectiveness of the latter? One chapter provides a suggestive heuristic framework of different student actions, and another shows that there are different ‘modes’ of interest representation at play – are they equally effective?

There are other influences on student representation that have not been sufficiently covered.

Among these developments, the most significant is likely the long-term impact of the ICT revolution on politics and higher education in Africa in general, and on student political organising in particular.

Smartphones, tablets and laptops have become ubiquitous in student life on African campuses; even where wi-fi is patchy and mobile data bundles costly, they are both a status symbol and an essential tool for accessing information and networking with classmates and friends.

What will happen to African student politics – indeed youth politics – once student organising has caught up with opportunities for political conscientising and mobilising offered by social networks?

A brief overview of #RhodesMustFall protests at the University of Cape Town gives an early indication; the subsequent nationwide protests under the banner of #FeesMustFall have shown that student mobilising in cyberspace – and thus the emergence of internet student movements – have become a reality in Africa. Will the overall outcomes be for the better?

We hope that this book will make an important contribution to our understanding of higher education governance, student politics and student representation in Africa.

* This article is extracted and shortened from the introduction of the book Student Politics in Africa: Representation and activism, edited by Thierry M Luescher, Manja Klemenčič and James Otieno Jowi. The book was published this month as part of the African Higher Education Dynamics Series Vol. 2. African Minds: Cape Town. The book is available here – for free in pdf form.