Africa needs differentiated higher education systems


Africa needs differentiated higher education systems

In a seminal 1993 article, Manuel Castells argued that universities are social systems and historically produced institutions that attempt to make seemingly contradictory functions compatible. He described the four functions of universities as: producing values and social legitimation, selecting the dominant elites, training the labour force, and generating scientific knowledge and supporting its application in society.

The challenge is twofold. First, a country needs institutions that are strong and dynamic enough to withstand the tensions between these contradictory functions. Second, the fulfilment of different functions cannot be resolved within individual universities alone – the different functions also need to be distributed differently throughout a higher education and research system in which particular institutional types undertake different combinations of functions.

Restating Castells’ observations two decades later, Philip Altbach argued that a clearly differentiated academic system is needed for research universities to flourish. For that, developing countries need to differentiate the missions of institutions in the post-secondary system and organise institutions in a rational way. But, according to Altbach: “The fact is that few if any developing countries have a differentiated academic system in place; and this central organisational requirement remains a key task... These institutions must be clearly identified and supported. There must be arrangements so that the number of research universities will be sufficiently limited so that funding is available for them and that other resources, such as well-qualified academics, are not spread too thinly.”

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