SOURCE: Nico Cloete  20 January 2020

An article published last week by Times Higher Education announced that Spain’s new left-wing coalition government was planning to restore university funding after austerity and introduce wide-ranging sector reforms, with “intellectual giant” and critic of “statist uniformity” Manuel Castells as universities minister.

This is not the first time that ‘extravagant’ titles have been bestowed on Castells. During his first visit to South Africa in 2000, former president Thabo Mbeki called him “the Karl Marx of the 21st century” and when he received the 2012 Holberg Prize (the equivalent of the Nobel for social science) from the Queen of Norway, she described him as “the world’s leading sociologist of the city and new media technologies”. What is less well known is that Castells is also a leading sociologist of higher education.

At a World Bank Seminar on Higher Education and Development in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in June 1991, Castells presented a paper on “The University System: Engine of development in the new world economy”, which had a major influence on how the World Bank, and subsequently many other international funding agencies, changed their views and funding of higher education, particularly in Africa.

In the 1991 paper and in subsequent lectures, Castells asserts that higher education institutions are essential for both economic growth and social justice. If we forget that the need for social, gender and racial equality is as important as innovation and growth, then higher education will sharpen social fragmentation, ultimately disabling the institutional capacity to manage universities and countries at large.

Functions or roles of universities

According to Castells, universities have four functions or roles: as ideological apparatuses; the selection and socialisation of the dominant elite; training for the high-level labour force; and the production of scientific knowledge. The focus here is on the first function.

Historically, universities played a major role as ideological apparatuses; that is, as producers of values and social legitimation. These institutions were rooted in the European tradition of church-based theology schools (Bologna, Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard and Salamanca). Other non-religious universities played a similar role in producing, for instance, imperial values in the case of some of the major universities, and of justifying domination and Western superiority in the colonial world.

However, as times changed, a key task of these institutions became the shaping of civic values and ‘flexible personalities’ in the development of prospective (re-centring) identities, which uses future-oriented narratives to construct a new basis for social belonging and citizenship. To this day, the formation and diffusion of ideology is still a fundamental role of universities, despite claims to being non-ideological.

In subsequent publications, and during an almost 20-year interaction with the Centre for Higher Education Transformation (CHET) and the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS), Castells argued that in Africa and Latin America higher education performed relatively well in selecting the elites (actually so well that it has become a major contributor to inequality) and training of the labour force. However, universities have not done well as ideological apparatuses in terms of citizen formation and in producing new knowledge.

It is particularly in the area of forging a new citizenry who are both supportive of developing postcolonial identities, but also critical of the government of the day, that universities have failed.

The idea of the university

In his acceptance speech for an honorary doctorate at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa late last year, Professor Jonathan Jansen, arguably South Africa’s most prominent educationist, started by recounting how he, as a person of colour, was turned away from UCT during an admissions enquiry and told to go to the University of Western Cape, which was then a designated university for “non-whites”.

Jansen praises UCT for its transformation in the new South Africa but then warns the university about new, post-apartheid threats to universities by reflecting on student and university leadership behaviour during the decolonisation and #FeesMustFall campaigns. The issues that Jansen raises apply to all universities in Africa and the world and concern the core values of universities. I set out below a slightly edited extract of this important speech.

“In terms of its social transformation, it is well-known that the university often acted unjustly during the apartheid years and yes, it still struggles with its colonial legacy in the post-apartheid years. Small steps, perhaps, but today the Senate chambers is called the Archie Mafeje Room; this graduation hall is named after Sara Baartman, and Cecil John Rhodes is nowhere to be seen. For this, the campus and the country owes the activist community of UCT a debt of gratitude. And yet throughout all of these struggles and successes, UCT remained a university. Which raises an important question: What is this thing we call a university?

“A university, in essence, is a place where reason triumphs over rage. It is a place where our common humanity matters more than our racial nicknames. It is the one place where anybody and everybody can speak without the fear of being shut up. This is what makes a university different from a church or a political party or a club. Your membership does not depend on shared beliefs. There is no party whip to keep you in line. There is no secret oath that binds members to a common cause.

“I would be remiss on this grand occasion if I did not warn you that in South Africa today, that ideal of the university is under threat.

“When you burn down things at a university because you’re angry, you undermine what a university is for. When you hide and conceal artworks you don’t like, you threaten the idea of a university. When you tell white students and colleagues that they cannot speak in the learning commons, you make a mockery of what a university stands for.

“When you question an academic appointment because the colleague is not a real South African (whatever that means), you are hastening the demise of the university. When you refuse to meet with and engage your academic colleagues because they hold different views from you, or might even be critical of your work, then you diminish the very idea of a university.

“Make no mistake, when you stand up for the idea of a university as a democratic space in which ideas matter and not the force of numbers or the membership of race or the allure of money or the blessing of government, you will be ostracised and you will be marginalised. The idea of a university was never simply to hand students a degree after three to five years or for academics to notch up ‘research outputs’ as if this were a canning factory.

“No, the idea of a university is also to produce leaders who stand for something and who are prepared to stand alone. The University of Cape Town with its stellar reputation can only soar when it could be said of every graduate that through your leadership and public duty you remain, in the words of Cornel West, ‘unbought, unbound, unafraid and unintimidated to tell the truth’.”

University leadership, students and government

Apparently, Jansen’s presentation was not received enthusiastically by either the university leadership or its students. A superficial reading of his presentation puts a lot of blame on students, but for many academics, inside and outside UCT, the university as an institution also did not come out well.

The report on the chaos at a UCT convocation meeting is just one example of poor behaviour on both sides.

During these protests, different university leaders took different stances, some taking hardline or tough security-related positions, while UCT amongst others was accused of endless appeasement.

What has not happened is the issuing of guidelines for university leadership by, for example, Universities South Africa, or by government, where in the contestation over fees the president bypassed his own higher education department and ignored the university leadership.

While it is important to defend the ‘founding ideals’ of the university, not only in Africa but all over the world during the rise of populist and autocratic regimes (particularly in the US), it is most important to reflect and act more decisively on the contribution of the university to citizenship and state formation.

To conclude with Castells, “for governments to play a legitimate role in higher education transformation, they have to be legitimate themselves. And they are not. But this is not a catch-22. There is one way to re-establish legitimacy: design and implement policies that have the public interest at heart.

“If governments continue to pillage public resources in the interest of politicians, then demagogues, such as [Donald] Trump, will increase their popular appeal. And populist demagogues hate universities because they are, after all, the bastions of critical thinking and legitimate resistance to abuses and idiocy.

“But universities cannot simply mobilise against destructive politics; they also have to protect their mission as beacons of innovation, ideas and equality, without surrendering everything to activism. Ultimately, the convergence between the shift to a new form of economic organisation, the acceleration of the technological revolution, and the relegitimation of political institutions, has a site in society: higher education.

“This is why the university is simultaneously a decisive battlefield and our hope for a better future in the midst of the current darkness.”


  • * Professor Nico Cloete is higher education research professor at the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy at Stellenbosch University, South Africa; guest professor, University of Oslo, Norway; and special advisor to the Research Centre for China-Africa Cooperation, Institute of African Studies, Zhejiang Normal University, China. He is also chair of the board of the University World News Africa edition.
Scroll to Top
Scroll to Top