Three distinct takes were offered on Universities and Democracy at the recent higher education conference. The first, from Professor Catherine Odora Hoppers, offered a fresh reading of our understanding of democracy. Professor Rajesh Tandon approached the topic from his experiences within India’s higher education and Professor Nomalanga Mkhize pulled these perspectives together to locate South African universities—those at the centre of research production and those at the margins— within these conceptions of democracy.
Democracy for peace
For Professor Catherine Odora Hoppers (left) what matters in democracy are the ellipses or ghosts that dwell under the seemingly unproblematic definitions of democracy. Professor Hoppers is Professor Extraordinarius in Education and the former SARChI DST/NRF Research Chair in Development Education. She was addressing the close to 2000 delegates at the recent Universities South Africa’s The Engaged University Conference, during a plenary session titled Universities and Democracy. Odora Hoppers spoke from the perspective When Democracy is not Enough: Towards Universities Educating for a Culture of Peace.
She said simple concepts like democracy often hide great ambiguity and complexity and “we need to acknowledge the existence of competing, distinct, but equally valid meanings” that are inherent in the very notion of democracy.
In her attempt at a definition, Odora Hoppers said democracy, as a system of government, could be conceived as having four key elements:
- A political system for choosing and replacing governments through free and fair elections;
- the active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life;
- protection of the human rights of all citizens; and
- a rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.
“Central to the idea of democracy is the aspiration that government is based on the consent of those who are governed. Sovereignty of the people is a precondition, in that the real power flows from the people to the leaders who hold power only temporarily”. By placing the electorate, the citizen at the center of the argument, it theoretically shifts power away from the state and into the hands of the people. However, in this process, the non-citizen’s presence is not accounted for.
Democracy, for Professor Odora Hoppers, cannot account for the non-citizen because its work is with the building of communities who share the same values, who communicate in a certain way.
There is “an inbuilt exclusion inherent in the DNA” of democracy. To make matters worse, communities coalesce around the notion of unifying ‘we’ by creating the “other” that must be scapegoated and excluded, through violence if necessary.
These deficits occur all too commonly when the role of the citizen is limited to the role played in elections and not beyond that. It also takes place because running for office is an expensive affair “which ends up leaving the masses with a narrow pool of people (elite of means) to choose from – legitimating perfectly the social and economic status quo” and effectively excluding the non-elite.
The human rights framework has emerged as an overarching instrument of choice, nationally and internationally. Not only does this mean that, globally, we have embraced a common vision for humanity. This holds a moral dimension, an accountability towards achieving basic development objectives. However, this also has its blind spots. Quoting Howard Richards’ (2004), Professor Odora Hoppers notes that rights are important for internalising a respect for others and becoming indignant when those rights are infringed. For Richards, there are too many rights and when this happens, force decides which rights are ‘right’ and can be used to justify violence towards others.
Rights, like democracy, do not obligate anyone to look after another or contribute to the welfare of the other. Rights need an additional element, a drive towards peace. The university needs to become a place where these ‘violences’ (emerging from democracy and human rights) are explored in all aspects because by making instances of violent repression obvious it will conscientise students to the generational pursuit of peace and the peaceful resolution of conflict.
The Indian experience
Professor Rajesh Tandon (right) is the founder President of Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA) & UNESCO Co-Chair in Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education in Delhi, India. His angle was to accept the basis that Professor Odora Hoppers had already established and instead reflect on democracy in India as the largest democracy (nearly 800 million voters) in the world. The voting age is 18, the same age at which students enter higher education. With about 40,000 colleges, nearly 1,000 public universities and 4,000 private higher education providers and professional institutions and about 45 million young people enrolled in tertiary education, this makes India the third largest post-school education system in the world.
He then turns to his own experience of higher education as the practice of democracy in everyday life. He grew up in a small town and did not speak English. When he arrived at his Engineering class there were 300 other students, all of whom had some English. It took him two years to become proficient in English while at the same time learning about the many sub cultures that made up the collective student body. The university is the perfect site where you confront and live with diversity, where you have to practise democracy. However, democracy is only narrowly understood as “voting rights”, the ability to hand over power to Professor Hoppers’ “elite of means”. However, the university is the absolutely right space where students should be learning about what makes one an active citizen. As is laid out in the Preamble of the Indian constitution, the practice of democracy at universities should entail learning about the responsibilities of freedom, equality, justice and fraternity.
For the past 20 years, this aspect has been receding, ever since the World Bank classified the university as a private good because the graduate benefits from a degree. This is a great pity says Professor Tandon. The meaning of ‘higher’ in higher education is to take the student higher into freedom, equality, justice and fraternity. However, the contemporary university is diminished as the site for democracy in action, even in democracies like India and South Africa. It is incumbent on the leadership of our universities to reclaim the space of democracy.
He said universities would succeed in that pursuit if their teaching and research programmes begin to develop in students, critical minds to question the status quo. But the students must question only after they have learnt to listen carefully to others in their communities — those who are not able to enter higher education but have a valuable point of view and knowledge to share.
Professor Tandon said these questions have become particularly relevant as we come out of the CoViD pandemic, which has forced young people to re-examine their lifestyle and contribution to sustainability. He said higher education should pause and reflect on what curriculum it has been teaching thus far, to have created economists who have seriously led to environmental collapse.
His final submission was that if universities pride themselves over electoral democracies they must “allow free conversations on the practice of electoral democracies in our classrooms, homes, public spaces, and should not allow that freedom to be impinged on by other interests. Youth understanding of electoral democracies in their own communities stands to benefit social harmony and development.”
The centre cannot hold
Thanking the earlier speakers for laying such an appropriate platform for her input, Professor Nomalanga Mkhize (left), who tackled Universities and Democracy from the angle of Rerouting the Centre, opened her remarks by acknowledging the crisis confronting universities. As Head of Department in History and Political Studies at the Nelson Mandela University, she notes how we have shifted away from the ‘ivory tower’ perception over the past two decades. The liberal definitions of the university are inadequate and they are rather called on become “agents of social transformation”. Prior to South Africa’s democracy the university primarily functioned as an enabler of state and social machinery. Whether white or black institutions, they were categorically not sites of democracy. Resistance to this started to emerge in the 1980s at selected sites, where liberatory intellectual engagement emerged. Tragically, when democracy was born, our universities failed to take the culture of struggle and dissent and instead embraced commercialisation and neo-liberalisation of the education system.
Research is still predominantly coming out of white institutions based in the Western Cape and Gauteng. These institutions form the centre of higher education in the country. Ironically, this centre of excellence makes transformation far more difficult to engage with, in comparison to within the institutions on the margins.
Moreover, these centre institutions seem to have developed an identity and perception of themselves that is becoming increasingly disengaged from the socio-political crisis that is unfolding in the country. Her provocation aimed at the centre is astutely summed up as “the extensive integration into existing global epistemic paradigms means more orthodoxy, more mimicry and less innovation”. South Africa’s integration into global systems [through the centre with its excellence] places her in a position of reluctance to challenge or dissent to orthodox thought — lest she be punished or marginalised. “We play the game of pseudo dissent that incorporates us into the ideological consensus of the global north.” Professor Mkhize critiqued the centre as perpetuating a “mono-culture of thought” that threatens its ability to innovate.
In summing up, Professor Mkhize argued the need to re-route into the centre, the margins — replete with opportunities to innovate — by virtue of being free from the hegemonies that dictate orthodoxies. That freedom presents to the margins, the opportunity for ill-discipline which, though on the one hand lending itself to mediocre output, questionable quality and low-grade conceptualisation, on the other hand unleashes rigour and, by implication, innovation.
Paradoxically, it may be the institutions at the margins that have the greater ability to achieve niche competence with a contextual focus. These qualities will allow the marginal institutions to produce graduates who are “socially intelligent, masters of the margin” and manifest a heterodoxy that can make them global contenders who bring unique insights to current challenges.
Written by Patrick Fish, an independent writer commissioned by Universities South Africa.