In South Africa, the #FeesMustFall Movement was led by students and workers who organized a collective campaign to address the dehumanizing practices of South African universities. Many educational experts have attributed these oppressive practices to the colonial- and- Apartheid-era educational policies, which prevented the Black masses from educational access and exploited workers’ labor for the benefit of the universities. Therefore, the #FeesMustFall Movement has placed education and its purposes on the forefront of the national and international debate.
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During the protest, the academics at the University of Cape Town (UCT) marched in solidarity with the students and workers to support the movement.
At the march, one of the senior academics said this movement is an opportunity for us to re-imagine the African university.
As a young academic, these words resonated with me because, for the past three years, I questioned whether the university was serious about working with communities to develop solutions to Africa’s most-pressing problems.
My experience as a young academic, though, has illustrated that my university’s verbal commitment to solving African problems is not aligned to concrete actions.
Without an alignment with words and actions, the university will continue to be a place that trains students but does not aid in the development of a better and more beautiful Africa.
The #FeesMustFall Movement inspired me to question the purpose of education, academic research, and service in the African university.
Purpose of Education
Purposing education is always a contested space. Most people believe the purpose of education is to provide students with skills to be employable in the global economy.
This notion of education is aligned to the philosophy of education centered around global competition; however, focusing the acquisition of employable skills reduces students to vessels who need knowledge put in to them to carry out specific tasks for their future employer.
How different is this educational philosophy from that of colonialism? African people were educated to work for the colonial governments to maintain an oppressive system that subjugated the African masses.
In contemporary times, African students are trained to serve the interests of global corporations and the ruling elite of their respective countries, while the masses are socially, economically, and educationally oppressed.
In addition to serving the interests of the aforementioned, students are prevented from exploring who they are and who they would like to become outside of dominant capitalist discourse.
For example, a year ago I taught a master class during an open day at one of South Africa’s largest corporations. During this class, a young woman described how she completed both varsity and post-graduate degrees but was never encouraged to develop or pursue a dream. She merely went to school to get the proper credentials for a good paying job, which left her feeling unfulfilled.
The gospel of education for employment prevents African nations from advancing socially and economically because it forces individuals into living a predetermined life that has no social or personal value to them. In other words, they become the living dreamless.
Purposing education for a new African university requires placing dreaming at the core of the learning experience. When I use the term dreaming, I am not talking about the vision occurring during sleep.
Instead, I am talking about a process where individuals reflect on the contradictions of their past and present lives that prevented them from maximizing their full humanity. When I talk about dreaming, I am speaking of a process where pathways are developed above, beyond, and through barriers toward a desired state of being consistent with who they would like to become.
When I talk about dreaming, I am talking about a process where students examine past and present dehumanizing societal practices that limited people from living full lives, while constructing actions to eradicate those contradictions using concepts studied in class.
I’m talking about using learning as an opportunity to engage with critical issues in society to provide students with the chance to apply concepts for concrete experiences in the real world, which offers them the opportunity for the creation of new theory and the negation of old theory.
Thus, the purpose of learning in a new African university would use the classroom as an opportunity for students to dream out loud about new solutions to build a better world, while piloting these solutions in society.
Purpose of Academic Research
Currently, African universities incentivize academics to publish in top global journals. Many of these journals are out of the price range of many individuals who are not a part of academic institutions.
For example, one journal article at a top journal could cost $40, which equals 600 rand in South African currency. In real terms, a person can go to the bookstore and purchase three or four books with that same amount of money.
The price makes knowledge developed by academics in Africa inaccessible to people in Africa; thus, the question one should ask is what is the purpose of academic research?
I recently served as chair of an educational conference in management practice, which brought educators from across the African continent to Cape Town to discuss issues impacting education in Africa. One of the prevailing issues my colleagues discussed was publishing.
Many of them complained about the disconnection between the role of research and its societal impact. They discussed how African universities are held hostage by accrediting bodies that reward the publishing in top journals and underappreciate universities who do not have enough publications in these journals.
This process trickles down to the deans of schools who promote and provide privileges to academics who publish in these journals, while overlooking the potential of scholars who publish in local journals.
A new African university would encourage academics to conduct and publish research that aids in the rebirth and renewal of society. Conducting and publishing research means African universities have to establish new accrediting bodies based on the needs of people in their respective societies and the continent as a whole.
These accrediting bodies should not be an African caricature of accrediting bodies in Western nations. Instead, these accrediting bodies should work to develop standards addressing what constitutes the quality of academically rigorous research and what should be the relationship between research and eradicating social ills in Africa.
Pivoting from publishing in Western-based journals that conceptualize the purposes of knowledge within their local context toward publishing in journals making knowledge about Africa more accessible to fellow scholars and practitioners will contribute to the rebirth and renewal of Africa.
Purpose of Service
Traditionally, service at the university primarily meant participation in committees within the institution. An academic can choose from a range of committees like admissions, curriculum redesign, transformation, etc.
Serving on these committees allows the academics to use their talents and skills to advance the institution. Using one’s skills and talents to advance the institution is important, but the aforementioned should also be used to improve society too.
Working in society is encouraged but is only incentivized when an academic is awarded with grants from outside funders to participate in community-based activities. Thus, academics are forced to decide whether they should participate in community-based activities outside of the university or they should spend time involving themselves in work that provides practical pathways toward promotion.
A significant number of academics choose the pathway toward promotion.
In the new African university, service means working with members of communities to solve practical problems within their local context. This requires academics to participate in community activities by using their skills to develop and implement programs that serve the communities.
The new African university would reward academics for working with community members to develop initiatives, because it will see the community — not as objects to study — but as subjects who can improve the material conditions of the society.
In sum, this notion of service is linked to embedding the university and academics into social context, which creates the possibility for development of mutual trust to assist in the development of a better society.
In conclusion, the #FeesMustFall Movement has shown that the dehumanizing university system that has prevented millions of African students from maximizing their human potential can only stand as long as we let it.
The #FeesMustFall Movement teaches us that we must be willing to deconstruct the notion of university through dialogue and/or direct non-violent confrontation. Through the deconstructing of the university system, we also have the responsibility to re-imagine its purposes to meet the needs and aspirations of the African masses.
It is my hope current and future academics will use this critical point in human history to work toward building a new African university.