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New pathways to sustainability: African universities in a globalising world

Swartz, Derrick


This chapter explores some of the strategic dilemmas facing many African universities in their quest for institutional sustainability against the backdrop of major transformations in the global economy and structures of knowledge production at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It traces the interplay of two contradictory but intersecting pressures - globalisation and democratisation - in reshaping the terrain upon which universities today are struggling to redefine their mission and role in wider society. By examining the recent experiments in institutional reform at the University of Fort Hare (UFH) in South Africa, and drawing on trends in both developed (United States, United Kingdom and Australia) and developing countries (Uganda, Tanzania and Mozambique), the chapter seeks to pose larger questions about the changing nexus of university and society in a distinctively African social reality.

The chapter makes the central argument that the capacity for long-term sustainability of African universities, especially 'marginal-type' institutions, depends crucially on the reciprocal character of their external linkages. To survive, they are increasingly looking at these relationships as opportunities for extracting new revenue to supplement their income; but African universities, more than their counterparts in North America and Europe, also find themselves having directly and actively to support strategies aimed at stimulating growth of that wider environment. In other words, sustainability
in this context implies relationships that are mutually rewarding. Recent studies have tended to place the university-society nexus on a unidirectional line: how universities draw more resources from their environment to supplement core budgets. However, experiences of many African universities support more complex multidirectional linkages - within which universities directly help to create and transmit new (economic, cultural and social) value in communities.

It is further argued that the type of strategic choices (for partnerships) made by institutions reflects the manner in which they seek to mediate the contradictory impulses of two historically process-shaping modern states - democracy and globalisation: on the one hand, democracy exerts pressure on universities to expand their horizons across ever-widening social spheres in promoting 'public good' and building social capital; and, on the other, the dominant logics of globalisation place countervailing pressures on institutions to be more competitive, entrepreneurial and self-sustainable. Caught between these two contradictory pressures, institutions often tend to privilege revenue-yielding (as opposed to socially rewarding) strategic partnerships, which bring some considerable short-term advantage, but which establish patterns of 'engagement' favouring corporate interests over social capital imperatives within communities. An 'alternative' (developmental) mode of engagement - based on the stimulation of democratic and social capital norms 'from below' - is possible, but this is predicated on the university linking its own interests to that of civic communities.

The chapter sets out to examine this proposition and hypothesis through roughly five broad nodes of enquiry. The first part of the chapter describes the contradictory effects of the twin forces of globalisation and democracy on the environment of higher education in industrialised and in developing countries.  Secondly, it outlines strategic aspects of the discourse of 'engagement' as a set of collective responses by universities to the changes in their environment. Thirdly, the chapter focuses on the experiences of UFH in its particular strategy of engagement following the transition to democracy in South Africa. Finally, it makes a tentative assessment of the ambiguities and strategic implications of engagement in relation to multiple roles of the modern university in the southern African social context.

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Chapter Title: New pathways to sustainability: African universities in a globalising world
Book Title: Within the realm of possibility: from disadvantage to development at the University of Fort Hare and the University of the North
Edited by: Mokubung Nkomo, Derrick Swartz, Botshabelo Maja
City: Cape Town, South Africa
Publisher: HSRC Press ( Human Sciences Research Counncil )
No. of Pages: 127-166

Document Type:Chapter in Book (Peer Reviewed)
Subject Area:National Systems and Comparative Studies
Country:African Continent
Keywords:Universities, Developing countries, Industrialised Countries, Globalisation, University of Fort Hare

File Size:229 KB
Rights:Permission to reproduce this chapter was granted by the publisher.
Date Added:20 August 2007

Swartz, Derrick (2006). New pathways to sustainability: African universities in a globalising world. In Mokubung Nkomo, Derrick Swartz, Botshabelo Maja (eds), Within the realm of possibility: from disadvantage to development at the University of Fort Hare and the University of the North Cape Town, South Africa: HSRC Press, 127-166