EADI/ISS Series | Empowering African Universities to have an impact by Liisa Laakso

Discussions on the impact of higher education and research have increased, together with the rise of strategic thinking in the management of universities during the last decade. Governments, taxpayers and private funders want to know which benefits they get from universities. Academic Institutions, in turn, want to prove how their work is beneficial to society in multiple ways. This tells us much about the global management culture in public services – and about a new pressure against the academic authority and standing of universities.


For example, the government of Zimbabwe’s new plan for higher education, the so-called 5.0-University vision, stipulates that universities must also include innovation and industrialisation in their activities – in addition to their three academic tasks education, research and community service.

The stated purpose of this plan is to reconfigure the education system of the country to create jobs and economic growth along with the fourth revolution “to transform the country’s economy into an upper-middle income by the year 2030”. Simultaneously, however, political turmoil and rampant corruption have created an economic crisis that is dramatically weakening the previously good working conditions at the universities in terms of resources, infrastructure and salaries.

Zimbabwe might be an extreme case, but it is not alone. The rhetoric of the importance of industry and ‘value for money’ invested in universities and the simultaneous cuts in their public funding resonates both with the technocratic and populistic views of higher education, if not reactionary voices against educated elites all over the world.

What does this rhetoric mean for the production of scientific knowledge in different disciplinary fields and in governance and development studies in particular? For medical sciences or engineering, identifying and measuring their impact and relevance can be quite straightforward. But for sciences focusing on policies and their critiques, such a task is complex, as their impacts are diverse, often indirect, slow and long-term.

Making disciplinary knowledge on governance and development relevant again

Research-based disciplinary knowledge on governance and development is not directly connected to innovation or industrialisation, but it has very much to do with the legitimacy and functioning of the social, political and economic organisations and structures that enable them. In a context of political transitions or struggles for democratisation happening in large parts of the Global South, one could assume that such a role is very important. But how to show that? Judgments about the importance of particular degree programs and research fields are also judgments about the marginalization of others. It is easy to give concrete examples of the usefulness of administrative studies, but not of political theory. The whole exercise relates to very fundamental values and epistemological premises of university disciplines.

Much of this epistemological discussion has centered on the necessity of state-led development or on decolonisation. The first one formed an important part of the expansion of higher education after the independence of African states and again in late 1970s and 1980s with the heyday of the dependency school. It resulted in the establishment of institutes or university departments of development studies, often with a political economy or an explicitly stated socialist orientation. One of the forerunners was the University of Dar es Salaam. In Zimbabwe, the Institute of Development studies ZIDS was first established under the government and later integrated into the University of Zimbabwe. But ZIDS does not exist anymore. In order to respond to today’s demands of the government, the profile of development studies apparently is no longer as relevant for the university as it used to be.

Do University curricula respond to the societal needs in the Global South?

Calls for decolonisation in the aftermath of ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ and ‘Fees Must Fall” student uprisings at the University of Cape Town have drawn attention to the fact that a decades-long evolution of higher education in the independent South has not abolished global asymmetries in knowledge production. Western traditions and theorizing still dominate much of the academic literature, including that on governance and development. Thus the concern that imported content of university curricula or models of analysis do not grasp the real problems of societies in the Global South. One example of how to respond to it, again from the University of Zimbabwe, is to bring a module of local inheritance into all degree programs.

New demands and pressures provide unique constraints but also unique opportunities for universities and scholars to develop university teaching and research. Research funders and development cooperation agencies should react to this looming backlash for development studies in social sciences in the South. It requires close interaction with public authorities from the local level to intergovernmental organizations, private stakeholders and academic associations. What is certain is that there are plenty of issues that can be clarified by development knowledge: the widening inequalities, international corruption, discontent amongst marginalized groups, simultaneous political apathy and new modes of radical mobilization by social media. This alone should be enough to justify the role of universities in these fields.


This article is part of a series launched by the EADI (European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes) and the ISS in preparation for the 2020 EADI/ISS General Conference “Solidarity, Peace and Social Justice”. It was also published on the EADI blog.

About the author:

Liisa Laakso is a senior researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala, Sweden. She is an expert on world politics and international development cooperation. Her research interests include political science, African studies, democratisation of Africa, world politics, crisis management, foreign policy, EU-Africa policy and the global role of the European Union.

Together with Godon Crawford from Coventry University, UK, she will be convening the panelProduction and use of knowledge on governance and development: its role and contribution to struggles for peace, equality and social justice” at the 2020 EADI/ISS Conference.


Image Credit: Tony Carr on Flickr.

Comment anonymously or log in