The public good is something everyone recognises as important, yet many find it hard to pin down. The same can be said about higher education, with views divided on what it is, who should attend and how its public good functions should be assessed.
Thus there are many opinions as to whether higher education only encompasses universities or whether it includes other kinds of tertiary level education. Similarly, there are different views on whether higher education should be about widening access or elite specialist training. How one defines and understands higher education has implications for how we think of its relationship with the public good.
These issues are complex all over the world. In Africa they are particularly challenging. The continent has seen dramatic expansions in higher education in the past 15 years, with many countries stressing the importance of provision at this level for the economic development of the continent, especially within an increasingly ‘knowledge-driven’ world.
However, these developments have taken place in societies whose education systems have often reproduced the inequalities associated with colonial and postcolonial political economies and socio-cultural divisions. Barriers therefore still exist around who is gaining access to higher education, with persistent inequalities skewing enrolment trends, particularly around race, class, gender, language, geographical location and disability.
These issues were dramatically brought to the attention of a wider public through the recent student protests in South Africa. The students also drew attention to some of the unresolved legacies of colonialism within African higher education institutions and the influence these have on the learning experience of students.
The Western model
These experiences challenge us with regard to how to make sense of the public good role of higher education.
They draw attention to the fact that debates about higher education and the public good largely rest on assumptions about the nature and form of higher education and how knowledge is acquired and developed – orientations that may be very far from the reality of African higher education where much of its relationship to society has been framed through the persistent impact of colonial relationships.
Central here are understandings of higher education and the public good that rest on an assumption about an ideal type of higher education institution, often resembling the kind of institution found in Europe or North America.
These complex and challenging questions are the central concerns for a project on higher education and the public good that is presently being undertaken across four African countries – Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa.
The project, funded by the United Kingdom’s ESRC-Newton Fund and the National Research Foundation in South Africa, is being led by the University College London or UCL Institute of Education and the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, with the full research team drawing from senior researchers in each of the four countries.
By interviewing key players in higher education in the four countries and triangulating their insights with an extensive literature review and relevant institutional data, the project intends to explore how key higher education players – students, staff, governance bodies, employers, government and civil society – understand higher education and the public good within their country contexts and across the region.
Not unexpectedly, although the project is still in its early stages, it is already evident that, as has often been argued, context matters. This point was continually emphasised at the project’s first inter-country stakeholder workshop in May 2017.
It was clear from the discussion that key contextual factors, both similar and different in the four countries, are central to shaping the role and functioning of higher education in each country and thus how the relationship between higher education and the public good is understood.
As the project begins to engage through fieldwork with various stakeholders to discuss their perceptions of the relationship of higher education and public good, it is anticipated that different histories and experiences with higher education will shape aspirations and descriptions of how this relationship is understood and enacted.
The project intends to capture and explore these nuances and grapple with the impact of different contextual realities on these understandings.
It also aims to consider what these contextualised experiences and understandings may mean for how we judge the contribution (or not) of higher education institutions to society.
It is anticipated that key findings from the project will show that how we judge the contribution (or not) of institutions to society and measure the quality of their offerings requires more than the deployment of decontextualised ‘indicators’ of perceived excellence associated with status or research intensity – a persistent criticism levelled at existing global ranking systems.
One aim of the project is to develop an indicator that enables us to consider a different way of assessing the value and contribution of higher education to the public good.
It is hoped that by drawing on an exploration of higher education and the public good in these four countries, new and necessary considerations will be brought into these debates, ones that not only bring a small part of the African voice more strongly into the deliberations, but which may also challenge dominate trends and ways of thinking within the global higher education community.
Dr Colleen Howell is a research associate at the UCL Institute of Education, University College London, United Kingdom.