Is a liberal conception of university autonomy relevant to higher education in Africa?

Divala, Joseph Jinja Karlos (2008-12)

Thesis (PhD (Education))--Stellenbosch University, 2008.


The dissertation investigates whether liberal conceptions of autonomy are relevant to higher education in African. And if they are relevant, the dissertation further examines the extent to which liberal conceptions of autonomy can enhance governance arrangements of the higher education system. The focus of the research is on governance arrangements. It proceeds by exploring selected cases of African universities in order to show that these universities function autonomously along a continuum of less autonomous to more autonomous (or substantively autonomous) systems, and argues that universities with the least autonomy can be said to function as less liberal institutions and those with more autonomy function as liberal universities. Different philosophical conceptions of autonomy are examined (in Chapter 4) to foreground what may be considered as constitutive meanings or marks of liberal autonomy. The constituent elements include freedom, rationality and objectivity, authenticity and identity, responsibility, critical thinking, and the enhancement of a vibrant critical community. This discussion has considered autonomy from a specific historical context of conceptual theorisation. In view of this, autonomy can be considered as more liberal and / or less liberal depending on the characteristics of the constituent elements. A continuum exists in conceptions of autonomy. This dissertation argues for a liberal communitarian position of autonomy where the “encumbered self” is acknowledged together with its life circumstances (Callan, 1997; Sandel, 1984). The recognition of the situatedness of being further sustains the concept of a deliberative process of engagement and promotes the public good. The dissertation has also examined the development of higher education in Germany, England and the United States in order to understand how conceptions of autonomy in each of these systems have developed against the background of the particular societies at the different historical moments. For instance, Wittrock‟s (1993) account of the universities in Western Europe, England and iv America acknowledges that as much as universities are situational; that universities are neither disembodied nor mindless in terms of how they frame their missions, yet again the same universities represent a particular function and identity as reflective spaces in different societies across generations. This discussion has further looked at university autonomy through the symbolisms of the University of Reason, the University of Culture, and the University of Excellence (Readings, 1996). Chapter Five has argued that neoliberalism and globalisation can make university governance less autonomous. Despite that neoliberalism and globalisation have been ushered in to make the university space the most dynamic in research and technology, such an approach has ushered in a competition-concentrated model of higher education in Europe and America (Scott, 2006: 129-130). While acknowledging that “ economic and technological forces have impacted on the university, undermining some of its modernist assumptions based on the idea of autonomy and underpinned by academic self-governance”, Delanty (2004: 248-249) considers these shifts and forces as multidirectional and not uni-linear in the sense of one replacing another. The dissertation argues that the African higher education system has similarly been affected by globalisation and neo-liberalism. Despite their being founded on notions of freedom, globalisation and neoliberalism undermine the practice and governance of higher education on the African continent. This dissertation argues that the function of universities is not just to focus on its economic extension but also and more importantly its civic role, and proposes that higher education in Africa can fulfil its civic role by the creation of a cosmopolitan citizen. In this way, the African university has a real chance to widen its autonomy. In conclusion, the implications of this envisaged civic role of the university on academic freedom and institutional autonomy are also examined.

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