Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Dezember 2005
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Higher Education and Cultural Responsibilities: Challenges for Innovation and Change at African Universities

Joseph S. Warioba (President Convocation at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania)



A university - like any other educational institution in a society - is a cultural product of the society within which it is found, and it is expected to be a cultural expression for the society. Where this correlation is missing between society and the educational institution, then there must be a missing link. This is because society is a collectivity of individuals who share certain qualities of life, such as a common boundary from other collectivities, and a common language that facilitates meaningful communication and exchange among them . We take it, therefore, that socializing agencies within a society are at once its cultural products and its society’s tools for cultural transformation and reproduction, if society is to continue to survive and to adapt to the many changes and vicissitudes that characterize our world. This paper addresses itself to the issue of the relevancy and vibrancy of institutions of higher education in serving the development of society. The discussion focuses on the African University of today; the examples and references have been drawn from the experience in Eastern Africa and Tanzania.


The University Mission

The historic mission of institutions of higher learning entails research, teaching (instruction at a higher pedagogical level) and consultancy (along with the whole range of public service). Research involves an empirically refined, systematic and consistent search for knowledge of the material world of changing circumstances and phenomena, whose nature is often perplexing and is in need of explanation. To insure the continuation of knowledge from one generation to the next, students must be trained to think, to solve problems and to apply their knowledge to other situations. Public service, whether in terms of specialized consultancy to a client or in terms of advice and opinion to a public institution, government department or civic organization, is a result of an individual’s or institution’s research and teaching experience, from which recommended solutions or courses of action can be a useful input to the wider advantage of society.

The three functions - research, instruction and public service - are possible, if the individual or the organization concerned is accorded the necessary freedom to pursue them. Hence, the often-cited importance of academic freedom - freedom to seek, speak and write the truth [research], freedom to teach and disseminate the researched truth [instruction/teaching] and freedom to propagate good practice through solicited opinion and consultation with the aim of problem-solving and/or innovation [public service]. If these are the cardinal functions constituting the mission of institutions of higher learning, then these, in turn, carry with them certain social-cultural responsibilities.

The Cultural Responsibilities

The responsibilities of institutions of higher learning - particularly of the universities - can be viewed as falling into three major categories, namely: (a) intellectual leadership, (b) sensitivity and responsiveness to societal needs and (c) institutionalself-review and self-interrogation for change and renewal. In each of these cultural realms the universities have a clear role to play.

(A) Intellectual Dedication and Universalism

One cardinal responsibility of institutions of higher learning, particularly of universities, is related to pace-making in the intellectual business of knowledge creation. By the nature of its curriculum and pedagogical approach, the university is a ‘pace-maker’ for humanity and society. It carries with it its own conventional ideal and image not only as an intellectual factory for new ideas and information, but also as an instrument for searching for truth (veritas) as well as serving as a veritable agent for the propagation of researched, documented and hence authoritative knowledge to posterity. This is expressed through two of three major and interwoven functions that, as has been pointed out, are basic to the mission of a university, namely: Research (i.e. knowledge production and building through continuous, systematic and dedicated field research, documentaries and other forms of search for accurate data); and Teaching (i.e. articulating and disseminating to others the newest findings as well as the current state-of-the-art knowledge).

Research and teaching, in this context, cannot and will not be confined to only local and immediately visible issues and problems. They are carried out in the service of humanity; and therefore all matters conceivable as important and pertinent to human discovery and knowledge for posterity are relevant matters of research and teaching. To succeed in both research and the dissemination of knowledge (teaching), institutions of higher learning must be accorded the necessary freedom of speech, a quality unfortunately often missing and not tolerated in many countries, especially those engaged in wars and civil strife. Back in the seventeenth century, a famous Czech scholar, teacher and theologian Johann Amos Komensky [Comenius] ( 1592-1670 ) instructed humanity to "teach all things to all men," of course with method, style and civility. That was his great pedagogical principle.

(B) Responsiveness to Society’s Developmental Needs

Universities have a very long history, dating back to the Middle Ages; and they have inherited traditions over the centuries that have long been strengthened by time and practice, traditions that have frequently been taken as sine qua non, beyond questioning. For East Africa, unfortunately, the Western-type metropolitan university that had been established in the land in late 1949 (Makerere University College) perceived itself as an elite institution and thus set apart (and indeed spared) from the concerns and problems of development in society. Seemingly it existed solely to be admired and its scholars simply to be feared! By the early 1960s, the three federal colleges that made up the University of East Africa were, par excellence, admirable "Westernized university institutions" which lacked a tradition that was rooted in the indigenous cultural milieu of East Africans. As such, these institutions distanced themselves as ivory towers, unconcerned with the "mundane," everyday issues of development in the new nation. The criticisms resulting from this attitude were made louder and sharper by men like Julius Nyerere (specifically with respect to East Africa and Tanzania in the 1960s), Yesufu (with respect to African universities in general in the 1970s) and Ivan Illich and James Coleman (with regard to universities in the broader Third World in the 1970s and 1980s).

As both the first president of a newly independent Tanzanian nation and as the first visitor to the University of East Africa, Nyerere’s criticism was sharp and pointed:

The education provided by the colonial government ... had a different purpose. It was not designed to prepare young people for the service of their own country; instead, it was motivated by a desire to inculcate the values of the colonial society and to train individuals for the service of the colonial state... with even heavier emphasis on subservient attitudes and on white-collar skills. Inevitably, too, it was based on the assumptions of a colonialist and capitalist society. It emphasized and encouraged the individualistic instincts of mankind, instead of his cooperative instincts. ... [It] induced attitudes of human inequality, and in practice underpinned the domination of the weak by the strong, especially in the economic field" (ibid: 3) ...

How many of our students spend their vacations doing a job which could improve people’s lives but for which there is no money - jobs like digging an irrigation channel or a drainage ditch for a village, or demonstrating the construction and explaining the benefits of deep-pit latrines, and so on? A small number have done such work in the National Youth Camps or through school-organized, nation-building schemes, but they are the exception rather than the rule. The vast majority does not think of its knowledge or its strength as being related to the needs of the village community.

The critique, among other things, points to the third important and necessary component of the mission of universities, namely, public service .This refers to the act of putting the knowledge and wisdom accumulated by the intellectuals at the disposal of the public, for consumption and use by the community and society surrounding the institution and by humanity in general. Over the years, the above criticism has borne some fruit, with a growing number of university scholars willing to serve in different positions in public, including government, service.

But to say this is not to say that all have been responsive to such calls. Nor is it to say that Government departments and projects have always been ready and open to invite such expertise, especially research-based opinion for more informed decision-making tasks and faster problem-solving actions. There is need for increased mutuality between universities and their scholars, on the one hand, and the wider public, on the other.

(C) Institutional Self-Interrogation, Self-review, Innovation and Self-Renewal

The third of the categories of cultural challenges and responsibilities for universities is in the area of institutional self-interrogation, transformation and renewal. This involves the difficult task of an institution’s willingness and readiness to examine itself critically with a view to effecting changes aimed at responding to the challenges of developing society as well as positioning itself to adapt to exigencies of operation.

For African universities, particularly the public, state-owned universities in East Africa, the period from the 1980s to well into the early 1990s, was a trying, tumultuous time in their operations. With the economic recessions of the late 1970s and 1980s, government subventions had almost become nominal, affecting not only the development and maintenance of the physical plant and facilities, but also the viability of the academic program and the morale of the associated teachers and staff. Most African universities had almost come to a virtual standstill, and, for the most part, the vital function of knowledge production had been relegated to a secondary place in the anguish of searching for a means of survival.

It was in the wake of this bitter experience in providing for higher education that some early cases of innovative institutions led the way towards an ‘invention’ of solutions that constituted ‘good practice’ and became emulated by other institutions to move forward. In connection with this pace-making initiative - at least in the region of Eastern-Southern Africa - two universities are worthy of mention, namely, Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique and Makerere University in Uganda. Edwardo Mondlane University pioneered the laying of one of the earliest and newest information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructures in the region, while Makerere University formulated one of the earliest strategies of student enrolment growth, which has seen a seven-fold expansion within a period of only ten years from about 3500 students in 1993/4 to 26,000 in 2003/4. Generally speaking, it was after the venturing steps taken at these universities in these two areas of concern, that other institutions of higher learning in the region followed suit. Among these institutions was the University of Dar es Salaam. For its part, Dar es Salaam has carried the process further into several areas of concern in systematic succession and with relatively equal vigor and noticeable impact.

Six areas symbolic of an attempt at purposive institutional transformation and innovation at the University of Dar es Salaam are worthy of investigation. They include (1) Cost-cutting and income-generating ventures , (2) Academic auditing (1998 and 2004) , (3) Information and communication technology (ICT) and its ramifications in teaching and learning program , (4) Student enrolment expansion , (5) Gender-balancing and mainstreaming policies and practices , and (6) A university-wide alumni tracer study for academic improvement. These six areas have been illustrated in the main paper.

In conclusion, it is to be said that the various areas reviewed no doubt testify to an institution’s drive to self-review, self-interrogation in search of relevancy, innovation and renewal. Much of the drive in the story about the University of Dar es Salaam’s effort (and what many may regard as its success) seems to have been a response to the threat to its survival: the hard economic circumstances of the 1980s. Yet the experience has been a notable one that has to be continued for the University’s success now and in future.

As to the other side of university cultural responsibility - viz.intellectual leadership - the University of Dar es Salaam, much as the other universities in East Africa and Africa in general, has to confront the challenge of a seemingly receding wave of readership and intellectual scholarship among a growing number of students, occasioned by four problems. These are (i) the scarcer reading material, especially course textbooks not only in their libraries, but also in their bookstores; (ii) the difficulties of procurement and the expense of textbooks, most of which are published in developed countries; (iii) the declining habit, among many students, to read the texts even when books are available, preferring instead to simply slavishly rely on the teacher’s lectures as well as recycled notes and essays from fellow students. Unfortunately, the trend is growing much faster among the younger population in schools and colleges relative to the older and retiring. We need to stimulate our societies and our young scholars to enter into a reading and writing culture. It is a much more urgent concern in our institutions of higher learning in East Africa and elsewhere; and a declining number of scholarship opportunities for young university graduates to travel and live in wider international and inter-cultural milieus in order to gain exposure to sources of wider knowledge and to have the opportunity to exchange ideas in institutions outside one’s home-country. We remain reminded by a sustained plea by internationalists, quoted elsewhere by Atle Hetland:

Do you recall names like Athens, Constantinople and Toledo? In different centuries these centers of learning attracted people from far and near. At other times and on other continents there were similar centers, for example in India, Egypt, and Timbuktu - the small desert town in today’s Mali. Such centers of learning were intellectual for a student, international in nature with a transcending understanding of national and cultural borders. We have all heard of the "wandering" scholars, students and researchers of former times, traveling far and wide to seek the best scientific environment, discuss with and learn from famous colleagues, and receive stimulation and reactions to new ideas. They left their homes and beloved ones to undertake strenuous and long-lasting journeys in pursuit of wisdom and truth.

© Joseph S. Warioba (President Convocation at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania)

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For quotation purposes:
Joseph S. Warioba (President Convocation of the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania): Higher Education and Cultural Responsibilities: Challenges for Innovation and Change at African Universities. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005.

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