African universities and identity crisis they face

Graduates from Makerere University Business School (MUBS) celebrate after attaining degrees in May last year. PHOTO/ MICHAEL KAKUMIRIZI

What you need to know:

  • The diminishing relevance of the university to both the State and the general public left the third, and present, generation of scholars in a precarious position. They lacked both the financial resources and the international networks enjoyed by the first generation. 

By Jude Ruzindana 

It is alleged that, very much to the dismay of its founder, the famous Transition Magazine was partially funded by the CIA through an anti-communist group called the Congress for Cultural Freedom.
Started in 1961 by Rajat Neogy, a Ugandan of Indian-Bengali ancestry who had returned to Kampala from his studies in London, the Transition Magazine quickly grew into a continental literary behemoth and a haven for writers and intellectuals with the possibility for readers in Nigeria and Ghana to receive copies by air freight in time for its 36th issue.

At the centre of one of the most interesting debates from this magazine is an article by the lawyer Picho Ali on ‘ideological commitment and the judiciary’. Having written it as a response to Abubakar Mayanja’s (Kyagwe North-East MP) critique of the 1967 constitutional reforms that had come after the 1966 Kabaka Crisis, Ali attracted varied responses from notable people, including Eriya Kategaya’s ‘ideology in Uganda is conspicuous by its absence’, John Kazoora’s ‘the law enslaves us to keep us free’, and Dani Nabudere’s ‘the real revolution is yet to come’. 

Whereas some of these young men were Dar es Salaam contemporaries, the Transition Magazine was based in Kampala and, therefore, this was the intellectual climate under which Makerere University existed.

People are, more often than not, outcomes of the times under which they live. In the bifurcated context of flag independence at the national level and the Cold War at the global level, the intellectual proclivity of these men and women appears to be befitting. But since the world has not ceased to experience political and social changes of that order of magnitude, what would explain the chronic deterioration of intellectualism across the board, from the Ivory Tower to the August House?

Who produces knowledge for us?
The university is many things, but mostly it is where formal knowledge is produced. It is also where, ideally, informed and thoughtful citizens, loosely referred to as intellectuals, are produced. In Uganda, Makerere has historically played this role if only for different reasons overtime. The Malawian economist and scholar Thandika Mkandawire, in his analysis of the three generations of African academics pointed out that the African university faced an identity crisis after achieving its raison d’etre; which had been to create bureaucrats and supply manpower to an erstwhile colonial public administration.

The diminishing relevance of the university to both the state and the general public left the third, and present, generation of scholars in a precarious position. They lacked both the financial resources and the international networks enjoyed by the first generation which had studied oversees and come back to indigenise the Ivory Tower and second generation which also undertook their postgraduate studies from the best institutions in North America and England.

The outcome, according to Prof Thandika, was a gradual descent into discourse that was less familiar with major global theoretical debates and excessively descriptive analyses in both academic circles and the media. More importantly, the new scholars and those they taught resorted to mostly internalist explanations of national crises, both political and social, ignoring the global structural contexts within which their country was embedded. This is how the new politicians, civil servants, journalists and the rest of society was built on a foundation of fickle intellect.

Another explanation lies in Prof Mahmood Mamdani’s inquiry into the dilemmas of neoliberal reform at Makerere. In his view, there was a marked difference between privatising higher education and commercialising it. The former was only an external relationship with the market where the university opened its gates to fee paying students in light of its financial constraints whereas the latter altered the internal process of knowledge production by creating a curriculum that suited the demands of the market.

For Mamdani, this process of reconfiguring higher education to create what were termed ‘relevant market-driven courses’ was very harmful inasmuch as it had no regard for disciplinary competence in its ‘interdisciplinary’ approach. Having been most pervasive in the Faculty of Arts way before it spread to the professional courses, this ‘vocationalisation’ (as he refers to it) clarifies the fate of departments such as History, Literature, Political Science and even the Social Sciences in a hostile environment with an austere administration and an anti-intellectual bureaucracy with little to no political will.

But this way of seeing things, whereas fairly reasonable, is incomplete as Nabudere notes in his critique of Scholars in the Marketplace. When Mamdani speaks to a deterioration in the quality and standards embedded in the disciplinary ‘history of knowledge production’, he does not make clear which of those notions of “quality” and “standards” are any different from the colonially inherited disciplinary boundaries that are upheld right before the faculty is commercialised. 

This leaves two questions unanswered; “Who embedded this quality and standards in those disciplines?” and “Whose ‘history of knowledge production’ are we talking about?” Since university education was, first and foremost, comprised of an “elitist core of a colonial curriculum of colonial vintage,” the answers to those questions would go a long way in highlighting the crisis of higher education in Uganda.

This trend of decline is also notable in the pervasive idea of training the next ‘job creators’ and not ‘job seekers’ by providing them with market-driven courses that seek to place individual survival on top of everything else. As time has come to show, this endeavour is neither sustainable nor logically coherent for two reasons; the first being that not everyone can be turned into an entrepreneur. 

However, if you’re comfortable with the high number of those who will fail to become job creators, consider the second reason which is that the problems that job creation intends to address, are not individual-problems in the first place.  They are problems of systems. To this end, Prof FW Jjuuko insists that theory and skills cannot be usefully counterpoised, even as a matter of emphasis since the former attracts contempt and the latter, reverence.

Sciences vs arts
As a developing country in dire need of solutions to combat poverty and disease, science has its place set out of it. Whereas it is possible to be an intellectual of scientific grounding, thoughtfulness of a social dimension is ‘reduced’ to the arts which are accused of not doing enough in the development of our country.
Having written the concluding chapter on the political economy of university education in an anthology of essays titled Politics, Democratisation and Academia in Uganda; The Case of Makerere University, Prof Jjuuko succinctly explored the superficial schism between science and the humanities in university. 

The government’s (and the market’s) emphasis of the former and relegation of the latter, according to him, “[was] informed by not only a brazen philistinism, but also a lack of appreciation of the genesis of the compartmentalisation of human knowledge and the failure to appreciate the nature of the constraints to the development of countries like Uganda and hence the solutions thereto.”

He argues that the idea of organising knowledge in discrete and separate compartments, such as arts and sciences, came with the division of labour in the factory system of capitalist production. It was from here that this logic was then transferred to the organisation of disciplines in the production of knowledge and its teaching, thereby compartmentalising it into ‘hermetic, mutually exclusive units that almost lost all resemblance to the contiguity and reality itself.’

In this arrangement, science enjoyed a particular status in the context of serving capitalist production. It shifted from measuring and observing nature to creating technological innovations that were used to increase the productivity of labour in order to maximise profits, eliminating competitors thereby transforming competition into big monopoly capital. 

This chain of events progressively led to diminished wage labour and along with it, the rate of profit. It is from these processes that a number of social problems such as unemployment and global inequality have arisen and it is increasingly clear that science cannot solve them alone. So where does this leave the humanities and the intellectual wherewithal they offer us in identifying and addressing these concerns?

His prescription is a sober one. Instead of offering an education that prepares young people to merely survive by adjusting themselves to the conditions of society, Makerere, as a case study for higher learning in Africa, should go beyond and equip them with the requisite tools for diagnosing and, therefore, transforming the social order to make it viable for both communities and individuals alike.

The writer is an accountant.         [email protected]