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Student Politics in Africa: Representation and Activism



The second volume of the African Higher Education Dynamics Series brings together the research of an international network of higher education scholars with interest in higher education and student politics in Africa. Most authors are early career academics who teach and conduct research in universities across the continent, and who came together for a research project and related workshops and a symposium on student representation in African higher education governance. The book includes theoretical chapters on student organising, student activism and representation; chapters on historical and current developments in student politics in Anglophone and Francophone Africa; and in-depth case studies on student representation and activism in a cross-section of universities and countries. The book provides a unique resource for academics, university leaders and student affairs professionals as well as student leaders and policy-makers in Africa and elsewhere.
African Minds Higher Education Dynamics Series Vol. 2
Student Politics in Africa:
Representation and Activism
Edited by
ierry M Luescher, Manja Klemenčič and James Otieno Jowi
is open access publication forms part of the African Minds peer reviewed, academic books list,
the broad mission of which is to support the dissemination of African scholarship and to foster
access, openness and debate in the pursuit of growing and deepening the African knowledge base.
Student Politics in Africa: Representation and Activism was reviewed by two external peers with expert
knowledge in higher education in general and in African higher education in particular. Copies of
the reviews are available from the publisher on request.
First published in 2016 by African Minds
4 Eccleston Place, Somerset West 7130, Cape Town, South Africa
2016 African Minds
is work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
ISBN: 978-1-928331-22-3
eBook edition: 978-1-928331-23-0
ePub edition: 978-1-928331-24-7
African Minds
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For orders from outside Africa:
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Acronyms and abbreviations v
Acknowledgements x
Foreword xi
Chapter 1 Introduction 1
Thierry M Luescher, Manja Klemenčič and James Otieno Jowi
Chapter 2 Student organising in African higher education: Polity, politics
and policies 9
Manja Klemenčič, Thierry M Luescher and Taabo Mugume
Chapter 3 Student representation in a context of democratisation and
massification in Africa: Analytical approaches, theoretical
perspectives and #RhodesMustFall 27
Thierry M Luescher
Chapter 4 e evolving nature of student participation in university
governance in Africa: An overview of policies, trends and
emerging issues 61
Ibrahim Oanda
Chapter 5 e three ages of student politics in Francophone Africa:
Learning from the cases of Senegal and Burkina Faso 85
Pascal Bianchini
Chapter 6 Revisiting student participation in higher education
governance at the University of Buea, Cameroon: 2004–2013 109
Samuel N Fongwa and Godlove N Chifon
student politics in africa: representation and activism
Chapter 7 Student participation in the governance of Ethiopian higher
education institutions: e case of Addis Ababa University 130
Bekele Workie Ayele
Chapter 8 Private higher education and student representation in Uganda:
A comparative analysis of Makerere University and Uganda
Christian University 162
Taabo Mugume and Mesharch W Katusiimeh
Chapter 9 Student actions against paradoxical post-apartheid higher
education policy in South Africa: e case of the University
of the Western Cape 182
Mlungisi BG Cele, Thierry M Luescher and Teresa Barnes
Chapter 10 e University of Burundi and student organisations: Governance
system, political development and student representation 202
Gérard Birantamije
Chapter 11 Politicisation of the National Union of Ghana Students and its
effects on student representation 224
Ransford EV Gyampo, Emmanuel Debrah and Evans Aggrey-Darkoh
Chapter 12 Conclusion 244
James Otieno Jowi
Epilogue Students, politics and universities: In search of interpretive
schemes for the 21st century 249
Lis Lange
About the authors 252
Index 257
AAU Addis Ababa University
AEF Afrique équatoriale française
AEOM Association des étudiants originaires de Madagascar
AESF Association des étudiants sénégalais en France
AEVF Association des étudiants voltaïques en France
AEVO Association des étudiants voltaïques de Ouagadougou
ADDEC Association pour la défense de droits des étudiants du Cameroon
AGED Association générale des étudiants de Dakar
AIDS Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome
AMEAN Association musulmane des étudiants d’Afrique noire
ANC African National Congress
ANEB Association nationale des étudiants burkinabé
AOF Afrique occidentale française
ASSER Association des étudiants de Rumuri
ASV Association des scolaires voltaïques de Dakar
AUC African Union Commission
BA Bachelor of Arts
BAdmin Bachelor of Administration
BCom Bachelor of Commerce
BLib Bachelor of Library Science
BPharm Bachelor of Pharmacy
BSc Bachelor of Science
BIF Burundian Franc
BMD Bachelor-Master-Doctorate
BSU Botswana Student Union
CC Central Committee
CCM Chama Cha Mapinduzi
CCNY Carnegie Corporation of New York
student politics in africa: representation and activism
CDP Congrès pour la démocratie et le progress
CED Coordination des étudiants de Dakar
CERFOPAX Centre de recherche et de formation pour la paix
CESUP Centre d’études supérieures
CDR Comité de défense de la Révolution
CHET Centre for Higher Education Trust
CFA Central African Republic Franc
CGER Cercle général des étudiants de Rumuri
CGT-B Confédération générale du travail du Burkina
CMPRN Comité pour le redressement patriotique et le salut national
CNTS Confédération nationale des travailleurs du Sénégal
CODESRIA Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa
CODMPP Collectif des organisations démocratiques de masses et de partis politiques
CPP Convention People’s Party
CSV Confédération des syndicats voltaïques
CUE Commission for Universities Education
DARUSO Dar es Salaam University Students’ Organization
DUSO Dar es Salaam University Students’ Organization
ENA Ecole nationale d’administration
ENS Ecole normale supérieure
EPRDF Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front
ESU European Students’ Union
FEANF Fédération des étudiants d’Afrique noire en France
FELD Fédération des étudiants libres de Dakar
FER Fraternité des étudiants de Rumuri
FESCI Fédération des étudiants et scolaires de Côte d’Ivoire
FLN Front de libération nationale
FPI Front populaire Ivoirien
GCSU Gold Coast Students’ Union
GER Gross Enrolment Ratio
GET Fund Ghana Education Trust Fund
GNSO Ghana National Students’ Organisation
GNUPS Ghana National Union of Polytechnic Students
GPA Grade Point Average
GRASAG Graduate Students Association of Ghana
GRC Guild Representative Council
GUPS Ghana Union of Professional Students
HEI Higher education institution
HELP Higher Education in Africa Leadership Programme
HERANA Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa
ICT Information and Communication Technology
Acronyms A nd AbbreviAtions
IEA Institute of Economic Affairs
IHED Institute des hates études de Dakar
IMF International Monetary Fund
ISSER Institute of Statistical Social and Economic Research
IUIU Islamic University in Uganda
KUSA Kenya University Students’ Association
LLB Bachelor of Law
MAK Makerere University
MBDHP Mouvement burkinabé des droits de l’homme et des peuples
MEEL Mouvement des étudiants et élèves libéraux
MEOCAM Mouvement des étudiants de l’organisation commune africaine
et malgache
MLN Mouvement de libération nationale
MoE Ministry of Education
MoFED Ministry of Finance and Economic Development
MUPSA Makerere University Private Students Association
MUWATA Muungano wa Wanafunzi Tanzania
NASSO National Association of Socialist Students’ Organisations
NCHE National Commission on Higher Education
NEC National Executive Committee
NDC National Democratic Congress
NPP New Patriotic Party
NPU Nigerian Progress Union
NRM National Resistance Movement
NSFAS National Students Financial Aid Scheme
NUGS National Union of Ghana Students
NUSO Nairobi University Student Organisation
OCAU Office de coopération et d’accueil universitaire
OCV Organisation communiste voltaïque
ODJ Organisation démocratique de la jeunesse
OSPHERA Observatory of Student Politics and Higher Education Research in Africa
OUB Official University of Bujumbura
PAI Parti africain de l’indépendance
PALIPEHUTU Parti pour la libération du peuple Hutu
PCD Communist Party of Dahomey
PCRV Parti communiste révolutionnaire voltaïque
PDS Parti démocratique sénégalais
PRA Parti du regroupement africain
RDA Rassemblement démocratique africain
RDR Rassemblement des démocrates républicains
RNDP Révolution nationale démocratique et populaire
student politics in africa: representation and activism
RSRCs Regional SRCs of senior high schools
SAP Structural Adjustment Programme
SAPA South African Press Association
SASCO South African Students Congress
SAUS South African Union of Students
SC Student Council
SCM Student Credit Management
SCNC Southern Cameroons National Council
SDF Social Democratic Front
SES Syndicat des enseignants du Sénégal
SET Science, Engineering and Technology
SHE Studies in Higher Education
SLTF Student Loan Trust Fund
SONU Student Organisation of Nairobi University
SRC Student Representative Council
SSNIT Social Security and National Insurance Trust
SU Student Union
SUL Student Union Legislation
SUVESS Syndicat unique voltaïque de l’enseignement secondaire et supérieur
SYNTER Syndicat des travailleurs de l’enseignement et de la recherche
SYNTRAGMIH Syndicat des travailleurs de la géologie des mines et hydrocarbures
SYNTSHA Syndicat des travailleurs de la santé humaine et animale
TANU Tanganyika African National Union
TCU Tanzania Commission for Universities
TEIN Tertiary Educational Institution Network
TESCON Tertiary Education Students Confederacy
TTAG Teacher Trainees Association of Ghana
TYL Tanzania Youth League
UAD Union of African Descent
UB University of Burundi
UB University of Buea
UBSU University of Buea Student Union
UCU Uganda Christian University
UCAA University College of Addis Ababa
UCT University of Cape Town
UDES Union démocratique des étudiants du Sénégal
UDSM University of Dar es Salaam
UED Union des étudiants de Dakar
UGAG Unemployed Graduates Association of Ghana
UGEAO Union générale des étudiants de l’Afrique de l’Ouest
UGEMA Union générale des étudiants musulmans d’Algérie
Acronyms A nd AbbreviAtions
UG University of Ghana
UGER Union Générale des Etudiants de Rumuri
UGEV Union générale des étudiants voltaïques
UK United Kingdom
ULC Union des luttes communistes
UN United Nations
UNAPES Union nationale patriotique des étudiants du Sénégal
UNCHE Uganda National Council for Higher Education
UNEBA Union Nationale des Etudiants Barundi
UNEEM Union nationale des élèves et des étudiants du Mali
UNESCO United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
UniYao University of Yaoundé
UNTS Union nationale des travailleurs du Sénégal
UON University of Nairobi
UPC Union des populations du Cameroun
UPC Union pour le changement
UPRONA Union pour le Progrès national
UPS Union progressive sénégalaise
USA United States of America
USAG University Students Association of Ghana
USARF University Students African Revolutionary Front
USD United States Dollar
USL University Senate Legislation
USN Union des scolaires nigériens
UWC University of the Western Cape
VC Vice-chancellor
WASU West African Students’ Union
ZINASU Zimbabwe National Students’ Union
The realisation of the project Student Representation in Higher Education Governance in Africa,
the related authors’ symposium and workshop, and eventually the publication and launch of the
book Student Politics in Africa: Representation and Activism and its companion publication, the
special issue ‘Student Power in Africa’ of the Journal of Student Affairs in Africa (Vol. 3, Issue 1,
2015), would not have been possible without the encouragement, scholarly advice, and funding
provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York (CCNY Grant Number: D 14034) and
particularly by Prof. Tade Akin Aina and Ms Claudia Frittelli.
We are also indebted to a good number of higher education experts, workshop facilitators,
speakers and presenters who participated in the August 2014 symposium and workshop in
Cape Town, which brought the authors together to discuss their proposals and draft papers
and to agree on a number of common concepts, perspectives and concerns. Our thanks go to
the presenters of special contributions, in particular Dr Leo Zeilig, Ms Eve Gray, Prof. Nico
Cloete, Ms Felicity Gallagher and Mr François van Schalkwyk. We would also like to thank
Ms Angela Mias for the organisation and administration of the symposium and workshop.
Lastly, our thanks go to the series editors of African Higher Education Dynamics and the
anonymous reviewers of the book manuscript for their critical comments and support.
This project started with a call for papers in 2013, followed by ongoing extensive
collaboration between authors and editors. While the symposium and workshop mentioned
above presented an opportunity to meet physically, there was ongoing collaboration using the
internet, Dropbox, Skype and email. We are pleased that the project has resulted in a new
network of emerging and established African higher education researchers who are working in
universities across the continent as well as in the diaspora, and that this network is continuing
and expanding in the form of a virtual research centre, the Observatory of Student Politics and
Higher Education Research in Africa (
The Editors
Philip G. Altbach1
Universities would not exist without students. Students are at the heart of the academic
enterprise. It is worth remembering that some of the earliest universities, in medieval Italy,
were established and managed by students. In the 21st century, in the era of massification,
students are often seen as burdens, customers, or sources of income, but seldom as the key
rationale for the university.
Carefully examining the appropriate role for students in universities is necessary in a period
of dramatic and often traumatic change for higher education, but is not an easy task. It is
worth noting that in history the concept of ‘student power’ has not been a dominant force. In
the medieval period in Europe, the struggle between the idea of the student-run universities in
Italy and the faculty-dominated universities in Paris and elsewhere was won decisively by
faculty power. Students were simply unable to provide the leadership and long-range perspective
In modern history, ‘student power’ has had a complex international history. Student
participation in university governance in Latin America was institutionalised in the Argentine
Reform movement of 1918 that eventually affected most of the public universities on the
continent. It was only the military dictatorships of the 1960s that weakened Latin American
student power in some countries. The student movements of the 1960s in many countries
introduced or strengthened student participation in governance – for example in Germany
and a number of other continental European nations. Although there were powerful student
activist movements in such countries as the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, and
others, there was little impact on governance and students did not gain significant participation.
It is also significant that universities in all European countries rolled back the reforms of the
1960s, and today students in general have a voice, but not major power in governance.
1 Philip G Altbach is Research Professor and Founding Director, Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, USA.
student politics in africa: representation and activism
With very few exceptions, students have little, if any, power over basic academic decisions
in universities worldwide. In many universities, students have significant control over student
life, including organisations that control considerable funds and the power to determine
student services.
What is the relevance of this discussion for Africa? As the research in this volume shows,
there are a range of traditions of student activism and student participation in governance in
Africa, and quite significant involvement in both campus and national politics. In some
countries, students have led the overthrow of regimes – and unlike in many other parts of the
world, students still have a significant political potential. In parts of Africa, there is also a
tradition of providing students not only with free tuition but also very inexpensive access to
living accommodation and food. Students often do not give up these perks easily – and yet it
is clear that governments can no longer afford to provide these benefits to the growing student
Africa is the only region of the world where massification is in its early stages. However, one
can already see the ramifications with the expansion of the private higher education sector,
deterioration in some countries of quality in the public universities, and financial pressures
everywhere. The realities of massification affect students in profound ways – continuing
pressures on quality, the introduction or raising of tuition in the public universities, and
the continued expansion of an often low-quality private sector. How are students reacting to
these changes?
Philip G Altbach
Center for International Higher Education
Boston College, USA
ierry M Luescher, Manja Klemenčič and James Otieno Jowi
The purpose of the project Student Representation in Higher Education Governance in Africa is
to map out and compare across the African continent recent changes in the higher education
landscape overall and the different models of how students as a collective body are organised
on both institutional and national levels; how their interests are aggregated, articulated and
intermediated into institutional and national policy processes; and what the role of political
parties and other social groups is in student representation.
This book brings together the work of eighteen scholars working on questions of higher
education development, governance, and student politics in Africa. Most are early career
African academics who are using the opportunity of this project to network with peers and
hone analytical writing and publishing skills. Following an open call for proposals in December
2013, we received over twenty abstracts and eventually draft chapters which we thoroughly
reviewed and individually engaged the authors on, making extensive comments, providing
access to local and international literature and advising them on conceptual, analytical and
methodological approaches to guide their studies. In August 2014, the group of authors and
editors met for a three-day symposium and workshop in Cape Town, South Africa, presenting
to each other our respective work, reviewing each other’s contributions, and discussing the key
cross-cutting issues emanating from them to present in this book, as well as its companion
publication, the special issue of the Journal of Student Affairs in Africa entitled ‘Student Power
in Africa’ (Vol. 3, Issue 1, 2015).
Originally, the core research questions we asked the authors were: First, how has the
expansion of higher education in Africa, the massification of existing public institutions,
admission of private students and in some institutions the creation of ‘parallel’ student bodies, as
well as the mushrooming of private higher education institutions across the continent, affected
student representation in different countries on systemic and institutional level? Second, how
do campus-based and national student representative organisations relate to political parties
and/or social groups and cleavages in society (e.g. regional, religious, ethnic)? How do they
uphold their organisational autonomy and legitimacy to represent the student voice? Who are
their members? Where do they get their financial and other resources from? What resources do
they have? How do they fare in managing these resources to the benefit of students?
student politics in africa: representation and activism
Collectively we have addressed these questions by means of theoretical work, overview
chapters on historical developments in student politics in Africa, as well as single-university
case studies (as in the chapters on student participation in the University of Buea in Cameroon
and the University of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia) and comparative studies (such as the
comparative study between Makerere University and the Ugandan Christian University in
Uganda). In addition, there are several in-depth studies on national student organisations like
the National Union of Ghana Students. The chapters in this book thus represent a combination
of collective coordination and discussion and the individual work of their authors; they
have been developed from original empirical and theoretical studies, engaging with the core
questions individually and collaboratively in their respective ways.
Our work as editors and that of the authors has also been cognisant of and informed by recent
empirical and theoretical work conducted in various other projects, including CODESRIAs
investigations into higher education governance in east, west and southern Africa, the studies
done by the HERANA Network on higher education and democracy and the Centre for
Higher Education Transformation on student leadership, student engagement and citizenship
competences in Africa (cf. Cloete et al. 2015). We have also been inspired by the publication
of recent special issues on student representation of the European Journal of Higher Education
on student representation in Europe (Vol. 2, Issue 1, 2012) and of Studies in Higher Education
on student representation in a global perspective (Vol. 39, Issue 3, 2014).
The project is first and foremost an opportunity to produce new knowledge on the
politics of students in Africa; a means to empirically investigate student representation in the
African context and to further develop key concepts, analytical approaches and theoretical
frameworks for studying student representation in the African context and beyond, taking
into consideration the different characteristics of higher education systems, institutions, and
traditions of student representation in this context. In this respect, it is not only meant to
‘document’ student representation in African higher education governance at this conjuncture
but also to contribute to the growing body of literature focusing on students’ political
agency, on the institutionalised forms of student political behaviour, and on key questions
confronting higher education in Africa against a context of democratic consolidation and
higher education massification.
The book is structured in twelve chapters. The chapter by Manja Klemenčič, Thierry
Luescher and Taabo Mugume addresses itself to the key conduits of student organising and
representation: student governments and national student organisations. It analyses student
organising in relation to higher education polity, the structures and processes of higher
education governance and the place of students therein; the politics of student representation,
student representative organisations and student leadership, as well as different types of
national student representative organisations. The chapter concludes by looking at students’
influence in making ‘student-friendly’ policies, the relation between student protests and
formal representation, and finally the policy recommendations from the 2015 African Higher
Education Summit and their implication for student politics.
Chapter 3 by Thierry Luescher accounts for key concepts, analytical approaches and
theoretical perspectives available to the study of student politics and student representation. It
starts with a discussion of the macro-context of an emerging massification of higher education
in Africa, analysing the challenges that arise from it for student representation. It then presents
the theoretical work of Altbach (1965–2005), Clark (1978), Epstein (1974), Olsen (2005),
Trow (2006) and others, on student politics and higher education governance, arguing for a
theoretically rich engagement with the topic (cf. Chapter 3). Luescher concludes the chapter
with reference to the 2015 #RhodesMustFall protests at the University of Cape Town to
illustrate the relevance of this conceptual tool for understanding contemporary student politics
in Africa.
The chapter by Ibrahim Oanda analyses trends in the historical evolution of policies and
practices for student participation in African universities. It draws on research conducted as
part of the CODESRIA Higher Education in Africa Leadership Programme, examining the
institutional structures to support student participation in university governance, sources of
funding, and influence of students’ voice in management decisions across the continent and
with specific reference to Ghana, Kenya, and Tanzania. Oanda’s analysis covers the historical
context within which student participation in university governance in Africa has evolved: the
dynamics of student participation in the 1970s when African universities increasingly became
national projects; the period from the 1980s and higher education during economic crisis and
structural adjustment; and the 1990s as a period of higher education revitalisation, expansion,
privatisation and commercialisation. The chapter concludes with analysing the current state of
student representation in African universities and challenges to effective student representation
in the context of the ongoing expansion and differentiation of higher education in Africa.
Pascal Bianchini’s chapter takes a similar longitudinal approach to student politics in
Africa, but focuses on student movements and the experience in Francophone Africa, especially
in Burkina Faso and Senegal. His analysis issues in three periods which he respectively calls the
age of anti-colonialism from the early 1950s to the early 1960s; the age of anti-imperialism
from the late 1960s to the early 1980s; and the age of anti-SAP and pro-democracy struggles
of the 1990s and beyond, during which student movements in Africa provided inter alia a
‘political barometer of a general atmosphere’. The comparative analysis reveals important
variation between Senegal and Burkina Faso in terms of student movements’ counter-
hegemonic action and governmental responses of repression and negotiation – involving
efforts to corrupt student leadership as well as the use of authoritarian methods which do not
bode well for the ‘generative functions’ of student politics. With reference to the current
context Bianchini argues:
A decade later, the picture remains ambiguous. Students’ protests in Francophone
sub-Saharan countries are still chronic not to say permanent. No matter what the
governmental answers (i.e. repression or negotiation), universities are still battleg rounds
for generations coming of age. However these mobilisations seem to have a lesser
student politics in africa: representation and activism
impact on political systems than in the previous decades, especially before the era of
massification and pauperisation of the student body. (Bianchini 2016: 103)
Chapter 5 concludes the section of overview chapters of the book. Chapters 6–11 provide more
in-depth studies of student representation in specific national, institutional or organisational
The chapter by Sam Fongwa and Godlove Chifon analyses student participation in
university governance at the case of the University of Buea, Cameroon. It starts with a broad
historical overview of higher education governance and student politics in Cameroon and a
review of previous research on student activism in that context. In its core section, the chapter
analyses the transition from a central student body to the current form of student representation
and its implications for student representation in university governance at the University of
Buea in the period from 2004 to 2013. The authors argue that
student participation in university governance continues to be fraught by external
factors such as local and national political dynamics as well as ethno-regional
battles. [Moreover, there is] a significant lack of cordial dialogue between the
students and administration. (Fongwa & Chifon 2016: 125)
Fongwa and Chifon argue that the absence of dialogue between student leadership and
university administration, leadership authoritarianism and the use of force, perpetuate a
student political culture of violent protest. The chapter also confirms earlier findings that
student politics in Cameroon continues to be affected by ethno-regional factionalism –
compounded by the Anglophone-Francophone divide in the country. Perhaps it is due to this
sensitive political terrain that student leaders at University of Buea seem to have managed to
somewhat ‘insulate’ the student union from the influence of political parties.
Chapter 7 by Bekele Workie Ayele presents an in-depth mixed methods study of the
participation of the student union in the governance of the Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia.
He addresses the questions how the student union participates, how it relates to political
parties, and how it upholds its legitimacy by using Olsen’s framework of four ‘visions’ of the
university (compare Chapter 3). His study finds a widespread exclusion of students from
participation in decision-making. Moreover, student representation at AAU appears to be
marred by a practice whereby university authorities ‘select’ the student leadership in such a way
as to exclude students who sympathise with opposition parties. Ayele also finds challenges with
regard to ethnic divisions in student organising; a lack of communication and internal
deliberation; a lack of resources and perceptions of leadership corruption. These and other
challenges produce a general ‘deficit of legitimacy’ for the student union to be able to effectively
represent students. Thus, overall he concludes that the participation of students in the
governance of AAU has been left at the margins, in keeping with Olsens governance model of
a university as a national instrument.
An insightful comparison of student representation in a well-established African flagship
university and a private university is provided in Chapter 8 at the cases of Makerere University
and the Uganda Christian University (UCU) in Uganda. Mugume and Katusiimeh show the
differences between student representative structures in the two universities; the extent to
which a relationship between student leadership and national political parties is either tolerated
or suppressed; and the consequences of this relationship for the representation of student interests.
Most importantly, the authors examine in detail how the emergence of private (i.e. self-funded
rather than government-sponsored) students in public and private higher education has shaped
student representation. They find that the politics of private students has indeed affected
student representation in various ways: new student organisations were set up by private
students (such as the Makerere University Private Students’ Association) which have reshaped
the structures and the scope of student representation in dialogue with the student guild;
student claim-making has become more focused on the interests of private students; political
activism has decreased since fee-paying students seem to fear questioning or challenging
university management; and therefore, student politics has lost some of its visibility. Mugume
and Katusiimeh also show how the re-institution of multi-party politics in Uganda is being
handled in the two different institutions and its consequences for student representation.
While at Makerere multi-party competition in student guild election is institutionalised,
political parties are barred from contesting student elections at UCU which, according to the
authors, may be the reason why ethnic-based, so-called ‘tribal’ student associations have come
to play a bigger part in choosing student leaders at UCU.
The chapter by Mlungisi Cele, Thierry Luescher and Terri Barnes applies Cele’s analytical
framework of four types of student actions to a milestone wave of protests and its aftermath at
the University of the Western Cape in South Africa. Cele et al. argue that the simultaneous
pursuit of a massive expansion of higher education for black students in post-apartheid South
Africa, which in effect meant creating opportunities of access for historically disadvantaged
students who came mostly from working class and poor backgrounds, and a government-
imposed commitment to fiscal austerity reflected in the rejection of free higher education
provision, the continuation of a cost-sharing policy with only limited financial aid provisions,
represented a policy paradox which further deepened and compounded challenges of financial
sustainability and student affordability at that university in the mid-1990s. They argue that
students challenged the effects of the paradox in student life through a range of actions
vacillating between collective protest and negotiation, as well as individual ‘survivalist’
strategies. The authors show how through prolonged engagement between the university
leadership and student leaders, an innovative institutional solution was found ahead of the
establishment of the South African National Students Financial Aid Scheme.
The next two chapters analyse in detail two student organisations of national significance
in Burundi and Ghana. In Chapter 10, Gérard Birantamije investigates student participation
in the governance of the University of Burundi and the role that the university’s student union,
the Association des Etudiants de Rumuri (ASSER/Association of Rumuri Students), has played
student politics in africa: representation and activism
in national politics in Burundi. Birantamije highlight’s ASSER’s important role in defending
both students’ and general Burundian interests with regard to higher education policies and
through positions it has taken on public policy. He argues that student representation in
decision-making on all levels of the University of Burundi engendered both efficiency and
efficacy in governing the university, and established within student organisations the basis
for student leadership skills on higher education governance matters. In this way, the student
organisation has also provided a privileged space for building a national leadership.
The chapter by Gyampo, Debrah and Aggrey-Darkoh shows that in the case of the National
Union of Ghana Students (NUGS) the influence of multiparty politics on the form and content
of student interest representation in institutional and national higher education policy-making.
They find that the partisan ‘politicisation’ of student politics in Ghana changed student interest
representation in so far as leaders have apparently become more loyal to the interests of political
parties than to those of their student constituency. This, they argue, has produced a double-
edged effect: on the one hand, it has undermined the radical expression of student interests; on
the other hand, it has also fostered a gradual institutionalisation of dialogue, negotiations,
collaborations and compromises as an alternative form of achieving student representation in
Ghana. Partisanship has thus enhanced student leaders’ ability to secure some relief and yielded
some favourable policies for students; however, it has also narrowed NUGS’ leverage within
the political landscape, which in turn has raised questions regarding the legitimacy of the
national student organisation to articulate and represent the views and interest of students
in Ghana.
Collectively a number of issues emerge as significant for understanding student
representation in African higher education governance at this conjuncture. Firstly, it is quite
clear that the topic of student representation is still elusive of a common conceptual or
theoretical core. This may be a good thing for growing the scholarly discourse in the field. The
diversity of conceptualisation and operationalisation of key issues leaves the field a wide area
of interdisciplinary inquiry. There are, however, some common analytical approaches: the
understanding of higher education governance as a multi-level system of structures and
processes within which student representation operates and related to that the stakeholder
approach to analysing student political behaviour and focus on the role of student organisations
and their organisational characteristics. Furthermore, it is clear that student politics and its
relation with higher education governance needs to be contextualised with even more rigour.
The literature surveys done by the authors show that student representation in higher
education governance is an area largely ignored in African higher education studies, hence the
timeliness of this book. There are national systems and institutions on which much more is
known than others, especially with respect to the extent to which government and institutional
policies have been shaped by the influence of students. There are also certain student
organisations that have been subject to much more scholarly attention than others. We hope
that this book goes some way in addressing these gaps.
There are broad trends discernible from the studies published here. For instance, while
student politics and representation in the earlier years was hinged on ideology, the marketisation
of African higher education in the last two decades has apparently led to a ‘dearth of ideology
in student politics. The two periodisation of student politics in Africa included in Chapters 3
and 4 show similar histories but different transformations, especially after the experience of
structural adjustment in the late 1980s and 1990s. Thus, while there appears to be a ‘grand
narrative’ of African student political history, the story gets more interesting and diverse in the
debates beyond the 1990s. Nonetheless, several chapters bring contemporary developments
and shifts in institutional governance to the fore that suggest elements of a common present
and future. There are several case studies that show how the marketisation of higher education
in Africa, and especially the admission of private (fee-paying) students has brought new
dynamics into institutional governance which permeate with stealth student participation in
governance. Many chapters also showcase the penetration of national politics and growing
influence of dominant political parties in student representation. They will continue shaping
student politics in Africa in the coming years. Thus, on the one hand we find a partisan
politicisation of student politics on the leadership and organisational level; on the other hand
we observe a ‘de-politicisation’ of the student body in general, led perhaps by the growing
influence of private students, involving a certain lack of political engagement or even political
apathy. Finally, identity politics still plays an important role: issues such as ethnicity and religion
come out clearly as having impacts, in most cases negative, on student leadership and governance.
How different student representative organisations will respond to these developments is likely
to further hone typologies of student representative organisations such as the one proposed
by Klemenčič.
Another topic frequently mentioned in the case studies are so-called institutional ‘incentives’
to student leaders – often with the intent to co-opt them rather than to make them more
effective representatives of the student interest. We have therefore paid some attention to the
organisation of student representation and limitations on autonomy of student representative
associations. The book shows that formal provisions for student representation are not always
granted by law, but need to be negotiated and therefore result in very different practices across
countries and institutions. This is linked to the question whether student representatives are
perceived as legitimate intermediators of the student interest and honest brokers in negotiating
the future of African higher education. What are we to make of wide-spread perceptions of
corruption? Are they based in actual observed corrupt practices or do they precisely arise from
the paternalistic, authoritarian relations that curb student leaders’ influence, rendering student
leaders ineffective and unresponsive to students’ concerns? Furthermore, several chapters
talk to the dynamic interaction between student protest and student representation – on
institutional and national levels. To what extent is the former a symptom of the ineffectiveness
of the latter? While Cele provides a suggestive heuristic framework of different student actions,
Klemenčič shows that there are different ‘modes’ of interest representation at play – are they
equally effective?
Further studies will also need to consider influences on student representation that have
student politics in africa: representation and activism
not been sufficiently covered here. Among these developments, the most significant is likely
the long-term impact of the ICT revolution on politics and higher education in Africa in
general, and on student political organising in particular. Smartphones, tablets and laptops
have become ubiquitous in student life on African university campuses; even where Wi-Fi is
patchy and mobile data bundles are costly, they are both a status symbol and an essential tool
for accessing information and networking with classmates and friends. What will happen to
African student politics – indeed youth politics – once student organising has caught up with
the opportunities for political conscientising and mobilising offered by social networks?
Luescher’s brief overview of the #RhodesMustFall protests at the University of Cape Town gives
an early indication; the subsequent nation-wide protests under the banner of #FeesMustFall
have shown that student mobilising in cyberspace – and thus the emergence of internet student
movements – have become a reality in Africa. Will the overall outcomes be for the better? It
is painful in this respect that we have not managed to get contributions from North Africa
which would have shed light on these questions with regard to the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions
(cf. Castells 2015).
We hope that this book will make an important contribution to our understanding of
higher education governance, student politics and student representation in Africa.
Castells M (2015) Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age (2nd edn). Cambridge:
Cloete N, Maassen P & Bailey T (eds) (2015) Knowledge Production and Contradictory Functions in African
Higher Education. Cape Town: African Minds
Manja Klemenčič, ierry M Luescher and Taabo Mugume
Student representation is typically seen as one of the key aspects of higher education governance
across the globe, and it is essential for a full understanding of the higher education polity,
politics and policies. Student representative bodies, variably called student associations,
councils, guilds, unions or governments have the primary aim to represent and defend the
interests of the student body. All of these student organisations are similar in that they organise,
aggregate, articulate and intermediate student interests, along with providing various services
and organising student activities (Klemenčič 2012). Student governments have historically
played a visible role in governance of higher education institutions which has become
particularly prominent with the Cordoba revolts in Latin America in the 1910s and since the
1960s revolts in Western Europe and North America. In Africa, they have played an important
role in challenging colonial rule and authoritarian governments across the continent (Altbach
1983; Luescher-Mamashela & Mugume 2014; Munene 2003). As a result, the state frequently
intervened in student organising by imposing one compulsory national student organisation
with a deliberate representational monopoly and fully controlled by the regime (e.g. Bianchini
2016: Chapter 5; Boahen 1994). After Africa’s ‘second liberation’ and the re-introduction of
multi-party democracy in a large number of countries in the course of the 1990s, some
universities shifted from a government-controlled bureaucratic to a more democratic collegial
model of university governance, which naturally accommodates student representation and
typically also provides for the existence of representative student associations. In South Africa,
for example, this has been conceptualised in post-apartheid higher education policy in terms
of a philosophy of ‘co-operative governance’ (Hall et al. 2004), which ensures that student
representation is extended across all institutions on the level of institutional governing bodies
student politics in africa: representation and activism
and their committee structures, and on system level in bodies such as the boards of the National
Student Financial Aid Scheme and the Higher Education Quality Committee and in the
Council on Higher Education.
Moreover, in the course of the macro-political developments of the 1990s and early 2000s
across the continent, representative student associations in many African nations have had to
re-position themselves in relation to liberal-democratic multi-party politics. This occurred
either by embracing partisan politics or asserting their autonomy from political parties, be
it on the national level and with associate branches at higher education institutions or
independently on the institutional level, where especially the student representative councils
(SRCs) or guilds of the prestigious national flagship universities1 continue to have nationwide
political appeal and sway. In some countries, multi-party politics occasionally wreaked havoc
with student representation so that any expression of partisanship became prohibited, as in
Tanzania with the 2005 Universities Act, or in South Africa by means of changes to SRC
constitutions in some universities (Luescher-Mamashela & Mugume 2014).
A much varied picture of stipulations in higher education legislation as well as institutional
acts and statutes regarding the formal involvement of students in national policy-making is
evident. Only in a few African countries are there explicit provisions for a national student
representative organisation. Their relation to higher education governance structures, such as a
ministerial advisory body, quality assurance agency or student loan board, is often not explicitly
legislated, even if there is provision for student representation (Bailey 2015). Similarly, there is
much variation across countries in explicit legislation of the extent of involvement of student
representatives on institutional and sub-institutional levels of university governance.
Related to the question of the extent of student representation on institutional and national
levels is also that of the legitimacy and autonomy of student representative associations,
including their resourcing and capacity and the actual influence that student representatives
wield in policy-making. While some student representatives may view formal representation
in governance structures and committees as a learning opportunity or an ‘opportunity for
self-expression’, rubbing shoulders in ‘proximity of adult policy makers’; more activist students
may seek more than a ‘voice’ and rather see the task of student organising in ‘making a difference
in the world through collective effort’ (Taft & Gordon 2013: 94). The legitimacy of student
representation and representative organisations is therefore not only a matter of legislated
involvement; it has to contend with substantive outcomes, insisting that formal student
participation in higher education governance is more than a means to co-opt and ‘tame’
dissent, but a real opportunity to express student power (Brooks et al. 2015; Taft & Gordon
2013). The dynamic relationship between student representation and student protests – the
1 African flagship universities have several typical characteristics: they are usually the oldest university or ‘mother university’ of a
country; they typically are the most prestigious institution historically and have been responsible for the production and reproduction
of the political and socio-economic elite, and they aim to be the leading developmental and knowledge-producing institutions in their
country (Bunting et al. 2015). The notion of ‘flagship university’ has been elaborated in greater detail beyond the African context in
Douglass (2014, 2015).
2. student organising in african higher education
formal and informal expression of student interests – is precisely symptomatic of the effectiveness
of different forms of and the responsiveness of the ‘dominant’ policy-makers to the student
voice (e.g. Cele 2014; Luescher 2005).
To start mapping the landscape of student organising in African higher education, this
chapter draws on a survey conducted in 2014 with higher education experts in ten countries
which has sought to gather their observations and perceptions of student representation in
their countries. In keeping with the countries covered in depth in the latter chapters of this
book, the focus of the survey has been on Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana,
Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.2 In particular, we have sought to
understand the conditions and practices of student interest representation in different kinds of
institutions (especially universities; polytechnics; private institutions) and on the national or
system level; how many representative student associations are active on national level, what
their organisational characteristics are (in terms of their legal status, resourcing, membership,
etc.); the influence of different kinds of groups on student politics (including political parties,
ethnic, religious or regionally defined groups, government and university officials); the extent
and mode of formal student representation; the role of student representatives and representative
organisations; and finally the ways in which students are seen in public policy discourse. In
addition, the chapter draws on yet unpublished results from earlier surveys conducted as part
of HERANA projects in Kenya, South Africa and Tanzania.3 By providing a comparative
perspective, the chapter sets the stage for in-depth studies of national and institutional student
representation. The chapter proceeds in three sections respectively focused on the higher
education polity and students’ place therein; student politics as part of higher education
politics; and finally higher education policy with specific focus on the policy agenda for African
higher education and key student issues emanating from that.
Student organising within the higher education polity
Higher education governance operates on various levels: on supra-national or regional level, on
national or system level, in federal systems on state and provincial level, and on institutional
and sub-institutional levels (e.g. faculty, department and halls of residence). Representing
student interests on these different levels may take different forms – ranging from protest
action to student representation in formal decision-making structures and reflecting the
inherent tension between student activism and representation ‘the first signifying aspiring to
2 No responses were received from Burkina Faso, Senegal and Tanzania, which are also covered in various chapters. The Nigerian chapter
was published in the sister publication to this book, the Special Issue ‘Student Power in Africa’, Vol. 3, Issue 1, of the Journal of Student
Affairs in Africa (
3 HERANA is the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa coordinated by the Centre for Higher Education
Transformation (CHET) in Cape Town, South Africa. The HERANA network encompasses eight flagship universities across the
student politics in africa: representation and activism
change the status quo, the second that of carving a better place within the status quo’.4
At institutional level, student representation is typically formally organised in structures of
student government such as an SRC, student guild or student union. Members of these bodies
may participate in the formal university governance structures: as student representatives
in the university council or board of trustees, senate/academic council, various committees
and other fora. In addition, they may have a special relationship with the university top
management, either directly through consultative meetings or mediated by student affairs
officers such as a dean of students. Institutional SRCs, student unions and student guilds may
provide student services beyond representation and arrange student activities. The extent
of student representation in university governance is often formally stipulated in a higher
education Act, a university private Act or charter, an institutional statute and the rules of the
university (which may include a student government constitution).
Institutional student governments in many countries associate on the national level into
representative structures aiming to represent student interests towards public authorities and
other national-level higher education stakeholders. These national student representative
associations formalise and institutionalise their organisations to a different degree. Some
associate in formal organisations with highly developed joint institutions to which the
government confers decision-making and representational powers. Others work more as loose
networks, which do not have common institutions in all or only coordinating bodies and
execute their representational functions collectively. In some countries, there is not one, but
there are several national-level associations which compete with each other for access to policy-
making and a representational role. Finally, there are systems where there is no national-level
structure, but institutional student governments ‘compete’ for influence in national-level
decision-making, with those from flagship universities typically having most influence. We
present below a typology and analysis of national student representative organisations in Africa
(Table 1).
National legislation basically in all democratic countries allows freedom of association and
students can register non-governmental, non-profit student organisations. Many national
associations acquire such status. Unlike student representation in higher education institutions,
provisions for the establishment of national student bodies and their representation in national
higher education structures and processes is rarely specified in higher education legislation.
The existence of such national associations almost universally depends on the collective action
of institutional student associations to associate on national level and on negotiations between
the governments and student associations, or they arise from pressure from students to their
governments to be consulted in national policy-making. Student associations, like interest groups,
lobby different national structures, such as ministries responsible for higher education, parliamentary
portfolio committees or political parties. Where students have no formal mechanisms of
representation they tend to voice their grievances through protests and other forms of activism.
4 The authors credit the anonymous review for this insightful quote.
2. student organising in african higher education
Higher education polity is indeed a complex system of interrelated structures and agents
involved in governing the sector. Formally defined, a polity refers to any organised political
unit within which politics takes place and political authority is exercised (Heywood 2002).
The basic governing structures of the higher education polity, their interrelation and the
location of key actors and stakeholders such as students, thus defines the higher education
regime as a set of legally codified as well as operational rules. In this section we explore the
differences in student organising on national level in the context of the higher education polity
of a particular country. Furthermore, we discuss how students are conceived in public discourse
which is an important marker of students’ position within a national higher education polity.
Student organising on national level
National student representative organisations, which usually take the form of a national
association or union, stand out because of their claim to the representation of all students in
the country (Klemenčič 2012). While there are undoubtedly commonalities across countries
in student organising on national or system level, there are also significant historical differences
between countries and broad regions (e.g. Francophone vs. Anglophone Africa; Central, East,
North, southern and West Africa). The differences in the characteristics of the national systems
of student representation concern questions such as: how many associations compete to
represent students on national level; what are their organisational characteristics; and which
ones are accepted as representing the general student body in formal sector bodies, government
and institutional structures. Furthermore, the structure and processes of the higher education
policy processes differ significantly and with them the role and influence of representative
student associations. These differences may originate in legislation and in informal norms and
practices of state–student relations.
These differences in student representation within national higher education polity can be
explored from two analytical perspectives (Klemenčič 2012): the types of national systems of
student representation and the types of student interest intermediation into the national public
policy processes.
The first analytical perspective examines how student interests are aggregated and articulated
on national level. Here we refer to different types of national systems of student representation,
whose characteristics are defined in terms of the number of associations and whether the state
has granted any representational monopolies. The distinction here is made between corporatist,
statist, neo-corporatist and pluralist systems of student representation (Klemenčič 2012).
In the corporatist model, government controls or effectively creates a student representative
association. Such student association is granted by the state the right to speak on behalf of all
students and to present the interlocutor between the state and the collective student body. At
the same time, such association is not autonomous in terms of having the ability to decide on its
own political and professional agenda (policy autonomy), on internal structures and processes
(governance autonomy) and having discretion over financial, human and other resources
student politics in africa: representation and activism
(managerial autonomy) (Klemenčič 2014). In a corporatist system of student representation, the
student association depends on the state financially and in terms of access to power, and in
turn, the political authorities control student associations by influencing (or outright hand-
picking) who the student representatives are. Such domination curbs the student associations
freedom and autonomy, which indeed define its political power (Klemenčič 2014).
In the neo-corporatist model, government formally or informally grants monopoly of
student interest intermediation to one or a few student associations by acknowledging these
as the representative voice of all students and formally or informally involving them in
structures and processes of national higher education policy-making. A neo-corporatist system
of student–state relations frequently involves some provisions by the state to support
the existence and functioning of student representation; however – and here comes the
distinction from the corporate model – while respecting these associations’ autonomy. This
may be by regulating that higher education institutions collect fees from all students which
are then diverted to student representative associations within the institutions (and these
institutional associations in turn pay membership fees to their national umbrella associations)
or the state provides administrative grants for national student associations (typically along
funding the work of other non-profit, non-governmental youth organisations through national
youth councils or national youth foundations) or by some other means. Again, for the neo-
corporatist model to exist it is not necessary that there exist only one national or system-level
(‘umbrella’) student association. What defines the neo-corporatist model is that there is one
association with a privileged status to represent all students or a few which differ functionally
(e.g. one representing universities and the other polytechnics, or one representing public
institutions and the other private) or territorially (when different institutions represent
different regions) or ethnically or religiously.
In contrast, in pluralist systems, the government recognises that there are representative
student associations and is willing to involve them in public policy processes – either formally
or informally. The state does not grant a monopoly of representation to only one association.
There may be several associations, which are similar in their objectives and function and
compete with each other for access to public policy processes and resources granted by the
state. A variation of the pluralist system can be seen in countries where no national student
association exists, but the government interacts with university-based students unions. If the
government regularly meets with several such institution-based associations and does not
privilege one over the others, such a system would qualify as pluralist.
Finally, statist systems are characterised by the absence of any relations between public
authorities and student representatives. Either national student associations exist, but are not
recognised and engaged by the government, or there is no national student association and
governments do not interact collectively with institutional student unions based at higher
education institutions.
The second analytical perspective addresses the question how student interests are
intermediated into public policy-making. Here the analysis is concerned with the characteristics
2. student organising in african higher education
of public policy processes in the areas of higher education and student social welfare, and
whether there exist formal mechanisms of student interest intermediation or students approach
the public authorities only informally (Klemenčič 2012). Thus, we can distinguish between
formalised systems where students have formal seats in higher education bodies on national
levels and informal systems of student interest intermediation, where students meet with
government representatives only informally.
According to the responses we obtained through the expert survey, the eight African countries
we examined paint a diverse picture of student organising on national level (see Table 1).
Table 1 A typology of national systems of student representation and student interest
Corporatist Neo-corporatist Pluralist Statist
Formalised Informal Formalised Informal
None Botswana
South Africa
Of the eight countries, none displayed characteristics of a corporatist system of student
representation, although such systems certainly existed in the past. All these countries have at
least formally democratised and the democratic norms preclude overt control over representative
student associations. However, this is not to say that such control does not exist informally.
Autonomy of national and institutional student associations from interference and control
of political authorities, political parties or university leaders is one crucial area that calls for
further investigation.
Our survey shows that formally there exist several neo-corporatist national systems of
student representations: Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda.
This means that there exist recognised national student associations that are autonomous – at
least formally in terms of legal status, financing and governing structures and processes – in
their operations. A neo-corporatist system would also apply in cases of countries where the
existing national student association is dormant, or there is no national student association,
and the student representatives from one university – typically the national flagship university
in the capital – play the representative role for the general student body in the national policy
arena. One such case is perhaps Kenya, where the Kenyan National University Students’ Union
shifts between periods of activity and inactivity and the voice of Kenyan students is heard most
often from students in the capital city, at the University of Nairobi and Kenyatta University.
The same has been the case in Botswana, where the formation of the Botswana Student
Union (BSU) was announced in 2013, but only got off the ground in 2015 with the election
of an interim board. BUS is hosted by the flagship University of Botswanas SRC. Similarly
in Burundi, a student union has existed since 1964 which currently goes by the name of
student politics in africa: representation and activism
fraternité des Etudiants de Rumuri (FER, Brotherhood of Students of Rumuri). It is based at the
University of Bujumbura but represents all Burundi students.
In some countries, intermediary bodies, such as a national commission/council on higher
education, have been established to carry out certain delegated functions, including regulatory,
distributive (funding), monitoring and quality assurance, advisory and coordinating functions
(Bailey 2015). In her analysis of national councils and commissions in African higher education
systems in eight HERANA countries, Bailey (2015) shows that there is some student
representation. For instance, the Uganda National Council for Higher Education has two
representatives of students from universities and other tertiary institutions on its board as
legislated by the Universities and Other Tertiary Institutions Act (2001). There are also legal
provisions for the inclusion of student representatives in the Tertiary Education Council of
Botswana and on board level in national agencies, such as the Ghanaian Student Loans’ Trust
Fund (Luescher-Mamashela & Mugume 2014).
The two most clearly pluralist systems of national student representation in our sample are
South Africa and Zimbabwe. In South Africa, two associations stand out: the South African
Union of Students (SAUS) and South African Students Congress (SASCO). Both claim to
represent South African students on national level and have the longest sustained history
of student representation in the country. In Zimbabwe, there are also two main national
associations: the Zimbabwe National Students’ Union (ZINASU) and the Zimbabwe Congress
of Students’ Union (ZICOSU), both of which operate in a partisan movement fashion.
In terms of student involvement in national higher education decision-making, student
representation is reported in both South Africas Council on Higher Education and the
Zimbabwe Council for Higher Education. In addition, in South Africa, students are represented
in various national agencies, including the Higher Education Quality Committee and the
National Student Financial Aid Scheme of South Africa. However, attempts in South Africa to
move towards a more neo-corporatist form of student interest intermediation are hampered by
the fierce independence of statutorily provided, institutional SRCs and the lack of coordination
and communication capacity and resources of the voluntary national federation of SRCs, the
South African Union of Students (SAUS), which was set up and is operating with the support
of the Ministry of Higher Education and Training.
Finally, there are the statist systems of national student representation where either national
student associations exist but are not recognised and engaged by the government, or there is no
national student association and governments do not interact collectively with institutional
students unions. In our survey, only Ethiopia fits this category. Student representation on the
national level has become largely absent in Ethiopia, effectively with no national association in
operation currently. While there is legislation that provides for institutional student unions
and student participation in senates and boards, there are problems with implementation even
at that level of student representation (Ayele 2016).
We should add, however, that the relations between state and students in all these countries
are highly dynamic and the situation may shift rapidly: from statist system where the government
2. student organising in african higher education
does not involve students in any way to some informal contacts and from informal contacts
between government and student leaders to no contacts at all. This makes attempts at classifying
systems of student representation and intermediation on national level difficult and susceptible
to errors. The change in the relations is typically conditioned by who comes to power, what
political issues are at stake (more or less contentious) and how cooperative or adversary student
representatives are or how autonomous and independent or legitimate the student associations
are perceived to be. Much more stable relations between the state and student representatives
exist in countries where these relations are formalised and students have formal rights in national
bodies. For example, even though we have classified here Nigeria as neo-corporate system, our
respondent observes that often in Nigeria ‘students have no voice in national policy-making,
they are just like ordinary electorate during general elections. In national development planning
too, they are asked to submit written input: They are only relevant in matters where the ruling
Federal Government want to use them to score political points’ (survey response). As our
respondents stated in the case of Cameroon, ‘most of the time students have to strike before
they are listened to’ (survey response).
Conceptions of students in public discourse
The place of students in higher education governance differs from system to system and often
from institution to institution; it is not the least dependent on students’ own organisational
capacity and leadership, as well as the conceptions of students and attitudes of the ‘dominant
actors, chiefly the ministries of higher education and university leaderships. A useful indicator
of students’ location within the higher education polity is how students are conceived in public
discourse (Luescher-Mamashela 2013). This typically is implicit and requires interpretation.
Thus, whether students are seen as minors or even children may be indicated by in loco parentis
rules and other paternalistic student rules and regulations, and this is typically extended into
formal governance as an exclusion of student representatives from formal decision-making
forums or their treatment as mere observers therein. Conversely, students may be treated
as adults and citizens with all the rights and responsibilities that entails. Students may be
conceived collectively as a legitimate higher education constituency, an important stakeholder,
who has an interest in the development of higher education and experiences and expertise
relevant in the making of decisions, or perhaps as mere troublemakers whose youthfulness
must be contained and who must either be excluded from formal governing bodies or be
included in a manner so as to tame or ‘domesticate’ the student voice (cf. Brooks et al. 2015).
In marketised higher education, students are seen primarily as clients of higher education,
consumers of higher education services and facilities, who have only an evanescent interest
in the sector and institution but may serve as useful sounding boards for gauging the level
of service provision and customer satisfaction; or perhaps they are a special type of client, one
with longer-term interests in the reputation of their institution, the quality of education
provided, and ultimately the value of their qualifications. Finally, students may be seen quite
student politics in africa: representation and activism
akin to childish pupils or, conversely, considered co-responsible for their learning, an integral
part of the functioning and success of higher education, and even ‘co-producers of knowledge
(as conceptualised, for example, by Carey 2013).
Our survey of the ways students are viewed in public policy discourse in the eight African
countries included in our study found that the most prevalent conceptions are the traditional
ones’ of students as the country’s future elite (cf. Mathieu 1996; Wandira 1977) as well as a
new one, introduced on the back of the marketisation, privatisation and commercialisation of
African higher education, viewing students as clients. Particularly prevalent is the elite discourse
in the prestigious institutions in Cameroon, Ethiopia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, which is
curiously often paired with the neo-liberal notion of students as clients prevalent in the same
countries, as well as in Burundi and Nigeria. Rather disempowering notions of students as
minors and pupils are less prevalent, except in Burundi and to a lesser extent in Uganda. A
generalised view of students as troublemakers is only widespread in Ghana. Finally, it is
encouraging that perceptions of students as constituency in the higher education sector are
quite widespread, especially in Burundi, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Uganda and Zimbabwe, as well as
in Cameroon and South Africa.
The overall picture rendered by the survey of conceptions of students in public policy
discourse suggests that the governance regimes of most higher education polities are in the
course of an uneven transition as far as student representation is concerned: the traditional
notion of students as future elite remains widespread, but it has come to be augmented with
more democratised views of students as constituency and most widespread, with marketised,
neo-liberal notions of students as clients of higher education. As argued by Luescher-Mamashela
(2013), conceptions of students in public policy discourse typically coincide with the manner
in which student representatives are formally included in decision-making in different domains
of governance. Thus, in academic governance, a widespread discursive construction of students
as mere pupils would typically exclude them from decisions on curricula, timetabling, assessment,
etc.; while a consumerist conception of students may introduce student representation in
new areas such as quality assurance. The argument is therefore that the combination of the
traditional elitist and neo-liberal consumerist notions of students as clients and future elite
signifies a regime of higher education governance in transition, both in terms of the implications
of a larger transition from elite to mass higher education (see Luescher 2016: Chapter 3) and
related notions of higher education shifting from being a privilege and institution for producing
the future elite to being a widely available, desirable good for which those who seek to acquire
it will pay. By extension, it indicates a likely transition from government-controlled bureaucracy
to managerialism (with or without aspects of academic rule and a democratic inclusion of
students). The implications for student representation are an uneven regime where student
interests and power are likely under-acknowledged, with prospects of more student protests
as a common expression of student claim-making while formal decision-making structures fail
to accommodate student power and interests adequately.
In the nascent transition from elite to mass higher education (cf. Luescher 2016: Chapter 3),
2. student organising in african higher education
higher education’s contradictory functions need to be assigned to institutions in ways that
require greater differentiation in the system (Cloete et al. 2015). In the process, a quite diverse
picture of student representation is likely to emerge: while on system level, notions of students as
a legitimate constituency with various civic and consumerist interests may come to be dominant,
in some institutions paternalistic views may prevail while in others outdated conceptions are
discarded in favour of collegial-democratic governance, managerialist governance, or a combination
thereof, with their respective implications for student representation (Luescher 2009).
Student politics as part of higher education politics
Students who aspire to become members of an official student representation structure such
as an SRC or represent students nationally usually have to be elected into position. In some
universities and some national organisations, a potential candidate may need to be a member
of a student political organisation to be eligible for election; even where there is no such
requirement, the backing of a specific constituency or a student organisation may be a requisite
to gain enough votes (Klemenčič 2012). If a student representative organisation is affiliated to
a political party, a complex set of relations and mutual expectations may ensue (cf. Luescher-
Mamashela & Mugume 2014; Mugume 2015). Similarly, there are student organisations that
predominantly (or exclusively) represent a distinct local regional, ethnic or religious group.
Unpacking the complex relationships between national political parties and other politically
relevant groupings on the one hand, and student representative organisations and student
leaders on the other hand, is at the heart of understanding student political organising and
representation. These complex relationships are reflected in the autonomy of student associations
and in the characteristics of the representational structures and processes that govern the formal
relations between higher education institutions (or public authorities) and student representatives.
Autonomy of student associations
One of the key defining characteristics of student representation is autonomy of student
associations. Autonomy of student associations can be defined as ‘having decision-making
competences and as being exempt from constraints on the actual use of such competences’
(Klemenčič 2014: 401). The former refers to policy autonomy i.e. the ability to decide on its
own political and professional agenda; governance autonomy as the ability to decide on
internal structures and processes, and managerial autonomy in terms of their discretion over
financial matters, human and other resources. The latter includes financial autonomy i.e. the
conditions imposed through funding, legal autonomy with respect to their legal status and
‘symbolic’ autonomy which is indicated, for instance in terms of their relation to political
parties (Klemenčič 2014: 401). Autonomy is essential for student governments’ internal
legitimacy in the sense of how student representatives are perceived by their constituency as
student politics in africa: representation and activism
being able to foster and represent student interests effectively and truthfully. The less autonomy,
the easier it is for elected university officials or political parties or government to ‘domesticate
the student voice, and student representatives have often been blamed for being co-opted by
university officials or politicians.
We have compared the eight African countries on several aspects of autonomy of
representative student governments. We found that in a number of countries governance
autonomy is limited. In Kenya, Nigeria and in private universities in Uganda, candidates for
student representatives are vetted by university officials. In Ethiopia, student representatives are
appointed by university officials rather than being subject to the democratic election process
from the student body. Countries where student governments at universities are fairly
autonomous in their governance, policy and management decisions include Cameroon,
Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa.
Legitimacy of student representatives also depends on whether they follow the principles of
good governance: are they maintaining democratic structures and observing transparent and
democratic procedures? Corrupt student representatives who use their political power in
exchange for material goods or symbolic favours present an acute problem in a number of
countries and undermine the legitimacy of student representation.5 The most typical examples
are when student representatives endorse, affiliate to, or otherwise offer political support to a
specific political party in elections in exchange for personal favours such as study bursaries
and the promise of jobs after graduation. Such practices are most notable in Cameroon,
Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda. Corrupt practices of various kinds are not
only characteristic of student governments, but, as perceived by our respondents, are also
characteristic of university operations in general. Furthermore, corruption occurs also between
university administrators and student representatives. As stated by one of our respondents:
Student representatives sometimes receive financial and academic favours and
promises of future job prospects at the institutions to buy their compliance with the
university management. (survey response)
Indeed, one of the most pervasive problems with autonomy of student governments stems
from relations to and interference from political parties. Such practices are present in the
majority of surveyed countries: Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda and
Zimbabwe. Particularly strong influence from government itself on student representation is
perceived in Burundi, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria and Zimbabwe. Some of these
countries are also those where student representatives fear expulsion or sanctions for their
activities (Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda and Zimbabwe).
An earlier study conducted among three HERANA institutions, the University of Dar es
5 An insightful in-depth study on this topic was recently conducted by Mugume (2015) with student leaders and political parties
operating in Makerere University, Uganda.
2. student organising in african higher education
Salaam (UDSM), Tanzania; the University of Cape Town (UCT), South Africa and the
University of Nairobi (UON), Kenya, only corroborates our findings. Representative surveys
conducted at these three institutions with undergraduate students found fairly widespread
perceptions that some or all student leaders in their institution were involved in corrupt
practices. Moreover, students at all three institutions considered their leaders more corrupt
than, for instance, academics or university managers. These perceptions were further confirmed
by student leaders’ own perceptions of student leader corruption! The study further found that
the levels of students’ trust in student leadership and their perception of student leaders
responsiveness were moderately positively correlated and moderately negatively correlated with
perceptions of student leader corruption (Luescher-Mamashela et al. 2011). These findings
provide some clues as to the possible origin of, and ways of addressing, perceptions of political
corruption in Africa arising as early as on the level of student leadership.
Relations between institutions and student representatives: Representational
structures and influence
The other key defining characteristics of student representation are the intermediating
structures and processes through which student governments represent student interests in
institutional and national decision-making (Klemenčič 2014). These are often, but not in all
countries, defined and regulated through legislation or only some aspects of the relationship
between student governments and their home institutions and student governments and
national governments are regulated. The key question here is whether students have formal
powers to influence decision-making in institutions or on national level, or whether they can
do so only informally. At the institutional level, this question concerns the existence of legal
provisions which would guarantee student representatives seats and voting rights in governing
bodies of universities such as a university council, senate, faculty boards, etc., and the system
of committees that typically cascade from them. Another question concerns the existence of
legal provisions that grant students the right to organise into representative student associations
and receive some financial support (from universities or through membership fees or otherwise),
training, office facilities etc., to ensure an existence and adequate capacitating and resourcing
of these associations.
According to the findings of our survey, student participation in university governing
bodies (e.g. university councils, senates, faculty boards, student services committees as well as
disciplinary courts for students) is statutorily granted in legislation in Burundi, Cameroon,
Ghana, South Africa and Uganda, but not in Ethiopia and Nigeria. The absence of such
provisions in legislation does not preclude institutions to regulate student representation
in their internal statutory documents and rules, but it also does not ensure that student
representation exists across all institutions within the national higher education systems.
Accordingly, there are significant differences between countries in terms of the mode of student
participation in institutional decision-making. Co-decision whereby student representatives
student politics in africa: representation and activism
have full voting rights on all or some issues in governing bodies is practiced only in Burundi,
Ghana and South Africa. Minimal participation as observers without voting rights is a common
practice in the remaining countries. For example, as reported by our respondents, in Ethiopia,
students ‘get involved in such lower level decisions as disposal of academic and routine orders.
They also have some minimal roles in commenting on cafeteria services and clinical
services’(Survey response). Furthermore, in Nigeria,
[students] are not usually considered for participation in the university governing
and decision making process; they are only invited for dialogue when they revolt or
protest against student policies by the university management. (survey response)
Moreover, among the examined countries student organising into representative associations is
specifically stipulated in national legislation only in Cameroon, Ghana and Uganda. The other
countries (Burundi, Ethiopia, Nigeria and South Africa) do not entail such provisions in
the national legislation. It also varies across countries whether student governments within
institutions have independent legal identity, own property and have independent bank
accounts, or whether they are integrated into the structure of the university. Similarly, the
funding sources vary significantly with respect to whether funding for student representation
comes from membership fees directly to student government or via the university of which
they are part. In several countries, student governments at universities tend to have commercial
outlets (such as restaurants, student travel agencies and publishing presses). This is common in
Burundi, Kenya and Uganda.
Towards student-friendly higher education policy in Africa?
The primary objective of student organising is to aggregate, articulate, and intermediate
student interests. While the structures and processes of higher education governance more or
less effectively facilitate the articulation and intermediation of student interests, the preferred
output of the policy process may be termed student-friendly policies that respond to specific
student interests. Correspondingly, student protests are often a direct response to student-
unfriendly policies; they frequently serve as indicator of the (lack of) responsiveness of
dominant policy-makers to student interests and bear testimony to a lack of effective student
representation in formal decision-making.
Student representation in Africa’s higher education policy agenda
The African Union Commission (AUC) adopted in 2014 a continental development plan
termed Agenda 2063 designed to guide the African Union, its regional economic communities
and member states, to coordinate development together for the next 50 years. Higher education
2. student organising in african higher education
access, quality and equity are outlined as very important issues to attend to in order for the
vision and aspirations of Agenda 2063 to be achieved. The role of students in supporting and
shaping this development is, however, never mentioned, except perhaps implicitly in terms of
African youth participation (African Union Commission 2014).
The African Higher Education Summit of 2015 has aimed to ‘create a continental multi-
stakeholder platform to identify strategies for transforming the African higher education
sector’ (Trust Africa 2015: 2). Student associations with regard to their participation in the
formulation and implementation of goals and policies will be a crucial part in steering the
sector towards achieving its aspirations. In this respect, it was encouraging to see that student
associations, such as the All Africa Students’ Union (AASU), were invited to the summit.
Moreover, student initiatives such as the submission of a Students’ Charter to the summit are
pioneering. A group of student leaders6 therein declared that
Our role as students and student leaders in universities must be recognised for who
we are, and our role in the governance of the institutions must be acknowledged. In
this respect, we have developed this charter to declare that:
Students must be recognised as adults, as citizens, and as equal members
and stakeholders of the academic community and accordingly be involved
in the decision-making affecting students’ social lives (e.g. in halls of
residence; sports and recreation) as well as our academic lives. […]
Students’ opinions should be heard, respected and taken into account in
decision-making, and student representation in all sectors and on all
levels of university decision-making should be encouraged.
The diversity of the student body must be accommodated in the
(Recommendations from the African Student Leaders in Community Engagement
to National and Institutional Higher Education Policy-makers 2015: 1, emphasis
in original)
Overall the student leaders made a list of twenty detailed recommendations to the summit
coordinating committee, covering teaching and learning, problem-oriented, student-engaging
pedagogies, community-based research and engagement, entrepreneurship and social leadership;
asking for the right to higher education to be recognised, for wide access to be facilitated with
funding for needy students and academic support for under-prepared students; matters of credit
transfer, articulation between academic programmes and qualifications; and inter-university
6 The charter of declarations and recommendations was developed as a contribution into the African Higher Education Summit 2015
by student leaders from across the African continent who attended the Talloires Network Leaders’ Conference in South Africa in
December 2014.
student politics in africa: representation and activism
and international mobility; and finally demographic equity and respect for diversity, non-
discrimination and a right to privacy in on-campus student life.
Both, Agenda 2063 and the summit’s Draft Declaration of 2015 predict a massive growth
and diversification of the student body with further increase in demand for higher education.
What the documents do not consider, however, is the extent to which students will be
represented in the whole process of elaborating and implementing the agenda on regional,
national and institutional levels.
By means of conclusion: Challenges ahead
Our analysis in this chapter points to at least four main challenges to student organising on the
continent. First is the legal ambiguity in terms of existence, legal status and financing of
national and institutional student representative organisations. When any of these three
provisions are not included in higher education legislation, the terms of student organising
have to be negotiated at each individual institution and on the national level. Such negotiations
result in varying arrangements with possibly less than optimal conditions for students to
organise and thus contribute to higher education decision-making; or no student organising
at all. The existing student associations ought to work together with their governments and
parliaments to develop legislative provisions (perhaps a national framework) on student
organising which will affirm the rights of students to organise and specify the overall purpose
of student associations, their membership (automatic or voluntary) and funding (through
membership fees or from budgets of hosting institutions or otherwise). Institutional student
associations also need to work together to overcome their differences and collectively form or
strengthen their national umbrella associations. Such cooperation is important for capacity
building of institutional associations as much it is for influencing national policy-making.
Second, and following from above, there is ample scope for improvement in terms of
student participation in national higher education policy-making, on institutional and sub-
institutional levels, and in relation to the continental agenda for higher education in Africa.
National level student participation appears to be particularly weak and there are very few
formal representational structures in place to provide for such participation. When African
governments are embarking on substantial reforms of their higher education systems the
contributions from students are vital both for effective policy-making and for the implementation
of these reforms. Again, it is the task of institutional associations to work with their governments
and parliaments to develop legislative provisions (perhaps a national framework) on terms of
student representation in institutional and national structures and processes.
National student associations within Africa also need to act collectively to develop joint
policies and positions regarding the future of African higher education and to intermediate
their positions towards the African Union Commission and other supranational bodies and
processes focused on higher education. The All Africa Students’ Union presents an existing
2. student organising in african higher education
structure of cooperation among African national student associations which either needs to
be strengthened (or reformed) to better serve the national student associations in influencing
the African higher education agenda. There are ample possibilities for collaboration between
national associations individually or collectively within AASU or otherwise with national
student associations in other countries and world regions. Such cooperation can lead to
exchange of practices, shared learning and thus capacity building of student associations, but
also towards rejuvenating global student cooperation to defend student interests toward
international organisations and institutions.
The third challenge is interference from political parties through political party youth wings
and student branches. At different stages of most recent history, national (and institutional)
student associations have been blamed for not defending student interests, but serving the
interests of the political parties to which different elected student representatives belong.
Autonomy from party interference is vital for internal and external legitimacy of student
representatives and student associations. Students will be disincentivised to engage with their
representatives and in the activities of student associations if these are perceived to lack
legitimacy. Equally, university leaders and governments will dismiss student participation in
decision-processes if these representatives are perceived to lack legitimacy.
Finally, as elsewhere in the world, African student organising and student representation
is facing an increasingly depoliticised student body. The marketisation of African higher
education is increasingly ‘economising’ politics and students have turned their focus away from
national politics to ‘getting in, through, and out’, attain a qualification and find employment.
Thus, capacity building of the student associations necessarily means reaching out to individual
students and student groups, raising awareness about student welfare issues before they
explode, creating an interest in the quality of higher education and broader issues of democracy
and social justice, and about the democratic means and processes of influencing decisions
within the higher education context and in society at large.
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Higher Education (AHED Series Vol. 1). Cape Town: African Minds. pp. 171–202
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of the Western Cape, 1995–2005. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of the Western Cape,
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Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Cape Town, South Africa
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ierry M Luescher
The ongoing process of higher education expansion in Africa has involved an increasing
commodification and privatisation of higher education including the establishment of new
public institutions and the mushrooming of private institutions, the introduction of fee-paying
(private) students in large numbers in existing public universities, and the related phenomenon
of ‘institutional massification’ (Mamdani 2007; Mohamedbhai 2014). Student politics confronts
this common context of higher education systems and institutions that undergo early stages of
massification; a process which arises within particular institutional and national contexts; and
one accompanied by changes in the institutional cultures, student bodies, and cultures of
student politics; by varying degrees and levels of including students in steering the process and
finding mitigating solutions to its accompanying challenges; by the increasing influence of
democratic multi-party politics in student representation; and related dynamics of national
politics and different stages of national political and economic development.
Against this, the study of student representation in African higher education is beginning
to mature albeit it remains under-theorised. There exists a good knowledge base on student
politics in Africa, made up of studies that typically focus on the national dimension of student
student politics in africa: representation and activism
organising and its broader social and political impact, and especially on student activism. It
rarely includes the formal, national, institutional and sub-institutional dimensions of student
representation in decisions that affect them, even though the study of student representation
in higher education governance is receiving increasing attention internationally1 in its own
right and in relation to the burgeoning literature on student engagement.
The African context of democratisation and higher education massification prompts a new
analysis of the contribution of students to the transformation of higher education and society.
There are several interrelated tasks involved. Firstly, we need high-level authoritative syntheses
of existing works (of the kind that Altbach has provided in his ‘encyclopaedic chapters’ on
student politics, cf. Luescher-Mamashela 2015) to discern from the stock of typically qualitative,
empirical, national and institutional case studies of African student politics, knowledge relevant
to understanding student representation contextualised within its historical trajectory, periodised
to illuminate its contemporary expression at this conjuncture. A good number of publications
have taken on this task using a historical narrative approach to synthesising and periodising
the existing knowledge on African student politics (e.g. Bianchini 2016: Chapter 5; Luescher-
Mamashela & Mugume 2014; Munene 2003; Oanda 2016: Chapter 4). Secondly, it requires
us to consider the key concepts, analytical approaches and theoretical perspectives that have
been developed in different geographical and historical contexts, such as those from the hey-days
of massification and university democratisation in North America and Europe, which account
for the first surge in literature on student politics. And finally, we will need to bring into
dialogue the historical, contextualised accounts and theoretical perspectives in the process of
doing new empirical work.
The main task of this chapter is outlining existing concepts, analytical approaches and
theoretical perspectives relevant to the study of student representation. It provides an overview
of existing international literature that may be used to enrich our analytical and theoretical
tools to analyse common and unique concerns that arise at the present conjuncture of African
higher education development for higher education governance in general and student
representation in particular.
The starting point is that challenges confronting student representation in the African
higher education context are both universal and particular. On the one hand, they can be seen
as typical issues confronting student politics in higher education systems that undergo early
stages of massification; on the other hand, they arise within particular institutional and national
contexts. The chapter proceeds in three sections. The first section discusses massification and
democratisation in conceptual and empirical terms as they apply to African higher education
with specific reference to the work of Scott (1995), Trow (2006) and Mohamedbhai (2014).
The second section outlines various analytical and theoretical frameworks drawing mainly on
the work of Cele (2015), Altbach (1964 to 2006), Klemenčič (2012; 2014), Clark (1978;
1 See, for example, recent special journal issues of Tertiary Education and Management, European Journal of Higher Education and Studies
in Higher Education on student representation.
3. student representation in a conte xt of democratisation and massification in africa
1983), Epstein (1974), Luescher-Mamashela (2013), Olsen (2007) and others, as part of the
existing international knowledge base of student politics, implicitly raising the question as to
their relevance for understanding the present conjuncture of African higher education
development and its implications for student representation in African higher education
governance. This task is concluded in the final section by considering some key learnings with
reference to the South African context and particularly the 2015 #RhodesMustFall protests at
the University of Cape Town which aptly illustrates the argument by Altbach and Klemenčič
(2014) that ‘student activism remains a potent force worldwide’, registering successes especially
in education reforms and combining protest, debates, sit-ins and teach-ins with new ways of
student mobilisation and interest aggregation and articulation in social media and through
online petitions.
Massification and democratisation in African higher education
The massive expansion of higher education has been a world-wide trend in the 20th and 21st
centuries, starting in the United States after World War II, followed by other OECD countries
in the 1970s through to the 1990s, East Asia in the 1990s and 2000s as well as the emerging
economies of Eastern Europe, North America, South East Asia, and some North African and
Arab countries, and in the last decade in sub-Saharan Africa (Mohamedbhai 2014). While the
‘global academic revolution’ (Altbach et al. 2010) has been dramatic in most of the developing
world over the last two decades, higher education expansion in sub-Saharan Africa has only
picked up against other world regions in terms of the gross enrolment rates (GER) in the last
decade, largely due to the long-lasting economic and political crises of the 1980s and early
1990s, disinvestment from higher education in Africa on the back of structural adjustment
conditionalities, a focus on the expansion and universalisation of primary and secondary
school participation, and masked by population growth (Altbach 1999; Mohamedbhai 2014).
In 1973, Martin Trow divided higher education systems worldwide into three categories
based on their GER. Elite higher education systems enrol less than 15% of the typical youth
age cohort, mass higher education systems enrol between 16% and 50% of the age group, and
universal higher education systems enrol over 50% (Trow 2006).2 Against this classification,
massification may be defined as the rapid increase in student enrolment in the transition from
elite to mass higher education. Trow’s classification involves characteristics not only related to
enrolment but more especially to attitudes to access, as well as criteria of access and selectivity,
the functions of higher education in society, institutional characteristics, the student career,
and features of academic governance and administration, amongst others (see Table 1).
In terms of Trow’s classification, most higher education systems in Africa are elite systems.
2 The GER is calculated as the percentage of students enrolled in higher education as a proportion of the population of a defined
five-year age cohort (typically 18–24 year olds). Trow’s original classification set the threshold for universal higher education systems
at 30% in 1973; in his revised classification (2006) the new threshold was set at over 50% of age cohort.
student politics in africa: representation and activism
Table 1 Trow’s characteristics of elite, mass and universal higher education systems
Elite (0–15%) Mass (16–50%) Universal (over 50%)
Attitudes to
A privilege of birth or talent
or both
A right for those with certain
An obligation for the middle
and upper classes
Access and
Meritocratic achievement
based on school performance
Meritocratic plus
‘compensatory programmes’
to achieve equality of
‘Open’, emphasis on
‘equality of group
achievement’ (class, ethnic)
Functions of
higher education
Shaping mind and character
of ruling class; preparation
for elite roles
Transmission of skills;
preparation for broader
range of technical and
economic elite roles
Adaptation of ‘whole
population’ to rapid social
and technological change
Broadly shared and relatively
high (in meritocratic phase)
Variable; system/ institution
become holding companies
for different kinds of
academic enterprises
Criterion shifts from
‘standards’ to ‘value added’
Homogenous with high and
common standards; small
residential communities;
clear and impermeable
Comprehensive with more
diverse standards; ‘cities
of intellect’ – mixed
boundaries fuzzy and
Great diversity with no
common standards;
aggregates of people
enrolled, some of whom are
rarely or never on campus.
Boundaries are weak or
The student
‘Sponsored’ after secondary
school; studies uninterruptedly
until gains degree
Increasing numbers delay
entry; more drop out
Much postponement of
entry, softening of boundaries
between formal education
and other aspects of life;
term-time working
Locus of power
and decision-
‘The Athenaeum’ – small
elite group, shared values
and assumptions
Ordinary political processes
of interest groups and party
‘Mass publics’ question
special privileges and
immunities of academe
Senior professors Professors and junior staff
with increasing influence
from students
Breakdown of consensus
making; institutional
governance insoluble;
decision-making flows into
hands of political authority
Forms of
Part-time academics
who are ‘amateurs at
administration’; elected/
appointed for limited periods
Former academics now
full-time administrators
plus large and growing
More specialist full-time
professionals. Managerial
techniques imported from
outside academe
Source: Adapted and shortened from Trow (2006: 244)
At the time that Trow first proposed it, the classification was not applicable to African higher
education; most African nations had only just started establishing higher education systems
(Mohamedbhai 2014). Currently the global GER is staked at 32%; it is at about 8% for
sub-Saharan Africa even though some African systems have increased their GER to the level
3. student representation in a conte xt of democratisation and massification in africa
of mass higher education systems, for example Mauritius (26%) and South Africa (18%); and
the GER of Arab states (including those outside of North Africa) is at 26% (Mohamedbhai
2014; Trust Africa 2015).3
Conversely, the GER in some sub-Saharan African countries remains very low at around
2% or less, thus testifying to the elite nature of higher education in those countries even if
actual expansion may be masked by population growth. Hence, Goolam Mohamedbhai
(2014) prefers to account for the expansion of higher education in African countries and key
institutions in the last decade in terms of actual student numbers, and conceptualises the
implications of the latter as ‘institutional massification’. He defines institutional massification
as an average annual increase in enrolment of about 15% to 25% over a decade, making
allowance for different baselines of institutional student bodies (Mohamedbhai 2014). The
extent of massification at system and institutional levels is illustrated in selected countries and
flagship universities in Tables 2 and 3.
Table 2 System expansion in selected countries (since 1999)
Tertiary Enrolment
1999 2005 2011 or latest % annual increase
Burkina Faso 9 878 27 942 60 998 20% p.a. (2005–2011)
Burundi 5 037 16 889 25 000 (2013) 6% p.a. (2005–2013)
Cameroon 65 697* 99 864 244 233 24% p.a. (2005–2011)
Ghana n/a n/a 261 962 n/a
Ethiopia 52 305 191 212 632 344 38% p.a. (2005–2011)
Kenya 47 254 93 341 324 560 (2013) 31% p.a. (2005–2013)
Mauritius 7 559 16 852 36 053 (2013) 14% p.a. (2005–2013)
Nigeria n/a 1 463 690 1 691 141 (2010) 3% p.a. (2005–2010)
Senegal 29 303 59 127 94 000 (2009) 15% p.a. (2005–2009)
South Africa 632 911 735 073 1 050 851 (2012) 6% p.a. (2005–2012)
Tanzania 18 867 51 080 135 367 (2010) 33% p.a. (2005–2010)
Uganda 60 000 124 313 201 376 (2013) 8% p.a. (2005–2013)
Sources: see References at the end of this chapter
*Enrolment for 2010
3 Individual country percentages are based on tertiary enrolment, and thus include non-degree higher education enrolments.
student politics in africa: representation and activism
Table 3 Institutional massification in selected flagship universities (1986–2006)
Student Enrolment in Year
1986 1996 2001 2006 2013 % annual increase
Kenyatta University, Kenya n/a n/a 7 057 21 150 70 006 33%
Makerere University,
Uganda n/a 9 861 n/a 34 376 45 132 4%
University of Addis Ababa,
Ethiopia 10 511 n/a n/a n/a 48 673 n/a
University of Buea,
Cameroon n/a 4 029 6 519 10 203 12 000 3%
University Cheikh Anta
Diop, Senegal 12 721 17 810 24 776 55 850 60 000 1%
University of Ibadan, Nigeria n/a n/a n/a n/a 33 481 27%*
University of Ghana 3 462 4 017 14,674 28 482 38 562 5%
University of Nairobi, Kenya 6 506 14 606 13 772 32 305 79 000 21%
University of Ouagadougou,
Burkina Faso n/a n/a 11 824 23 780 40 000
(2010) 17%
Sources: see References at the end of this chapter
*Enrolments for 2011 totalled 21 636
Table 2 shows that institutional massification (since 2005 until latest figures) has occurred in
the cases of Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Kenya, Mauritius, Senegal and Tanzania with annual
rates of growth of about 15% and above. Indeed, most systems surveyed here show remarkable
growth. Table 3 indicates the massive expansion at certain institutions such as Kenyatta
University and the University of Nairobi in Kenya as well as Ibadan University, Nigeria and the
University of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, with annual increases of up to 33%. These figures
illustrate the argument by Nico Cloete and Peter Maassen that most national higher education
systems in Africa are in fact ‘overcrowded elite systems’ (Cloete & Maassen 2015: 6).
The expansion of African higher education continent-wide is predicted to continue over
the next decades to mass and eventually to universal higher education by 2063 (Trust Africa
2015). The implications of massification are manifold: while in the first place it involves an
increase in absolute student numbers and in the case of system massification an increase in GER
to above 15%, massification involves changes in the composition, character and aspirations of
students (including increasing gender parity and admission of greater numbers of lower middle
class and working class students); changes in the size of institutions and new institutional types
including private providers; pressures on the infrastructure and financial and human resources
of existing public higher education institutions; changes in curriculum and modes of delivery;
changes in higher education funding typically involving the introduction of some form of cost-
sharing (in some cases the emergence of ‘parallel’ – publicly versus privately funded – student
3. student representation in a conte xt of democratisation and massification in africa
bodies); and changes in the academic workforce such as an increasing casualisation of teaching
staff (Mohamedbhai 2014; also see Table 1 above).
Moreover, massification involves changes in higher education governance. With reference
to the British experience, Peter Scott (1995) distinguishes different phases in university
governance linked to the expansion of higher education. The ‘donnish phase’ is characterised
by a system of governance where the professorial chair represents the definitive seat of academic
authority. This donnish system of governance is typical for elite systems; it may be extended
through a collegial system to the faculty and institutional levels of governance, or it may be
subject to strong state and bureaucratic authority as evident in the continental European mode
of university governance for much of the 20th century (Clark 1978). The ‘democratic phase’
is characterised by a system of collegial-democratic governance at all levels of university
governance and includes prominently non-professorial academics, students, as well as other
members of the extended university community in a constituency-based system of representative
university governance. A democratic phase of university governance was initiated in the
aftermath of the 1960s student rebellions in many universities in Europe and North America
through a process of ‘university democratisation’ (see below). Since the 1980s, higher education
has seen the emergence of a ‘managerial phase’, which has brought new public management
practices into the university administration and where academics and researchers have
increasingly become accountable for their performance to line-managers (Scott 1995, in NCHE
1996). Both Scott and Trow show that the different governance phases are intertwined with
the expansion of higher education, even if features of governance characteristic of one phase
may endure in certain institutions even in a different phase (Luescher 2008).
The massification of higher education involves ‘a parallel process of democratisation of
knowledge, in terms of both teaching and research’ (Scott 1998: 126); it implies a democratisation
of access to higher education insofar as it opens up participation beyond a narrow elite to lower
middle class and working class students and women. It transforms higher education from a
privilege of the few to a right of many (compare Table 1; Trow 2006). Increased pressures on
the public purse, which are often mitigated by the introduction of cost-sharing mechanisms,
produce demands for accountability, relevance and responsiveness, both within institutions
as well as at system level. Governance changes at the system level are signified, for instance, by
the establishment of external monitoring and quality assurance mechanisms; at institutional
level, massification has seen the demise or transformation of donnish governance through
processes of university democratisation as well as the introduction of managerial tools and
practices (e.g. Luescher 2008; Scott 1995 in NCHE 1996; Trow 2006). In the American and
European contexts, massification has gone hand-in-hand with high levels of student activism
in the 1960s and eventually a process of university democratisation in the 1970s (Epstein
1974; Habermas 1971; Moodie & Eustace 1974). University democratisation has therefore
been defined as ‘a reconstitution of internal decision-making in universities with reference to
democratic principles, inter alia, by making decision-making processes more representative of
internal constituencies such as students’ (Luescher-Mamashela 2010: 260). While in some
student politics in africa: representation and activism
contexts, university democratisation and the introduction of managerial practices into the
administration of universities has been seen as sequential following respective earlier phases
(Scott 1995, in NCHE 1996), managerialism does not need to be incompatible with democratised
forms of university governance as well as remnants of donnish governance in the core functions
of universities (Luescher 2008). Thus, in the South African context, the National Commission
on Higher Educations (1996) proposals for the post-apartheid expansion of black higher
education and massification were complemented by a call for a democratisation of university
governance along with the introduction of more modern management practices. In this
respect, the democratisation of higher education enrolment and governance can be seen as a
typical, if not necessary, development accompanying the deepening of democracy in state and
society. This argument traces its origins back to the work of Habermas (1971) on university
democratisation; it is also suggested by evidence showing a strong (yet ambiguous) correlation
between democracy and socio-economic development (Haerpfer et al. 2009).
Democratisation and the changing student body
The current context of African higher education and future prospect of a continent-wide
massification and eventually a universalisation of higher education in Africa is important for
the study of student representation in university governance, because student politics can neither
be abstracted from the student body itself nor from the larger institutional and macro socio-
economic and political conditions. The student body refers to the collective of students of a
university (Badat 1999: 23). As noted by Trow (2006) and others, as a higher education system
democratises from elite into mass higher education, the student body changes in its absolute
size and in the proportion of the relevant age group enrolled in higher education, along
with other changes at systemic and national levels of higher education. Especially in the early
stages of massification, this tends to produce higher levels of student discontent, along with
three pressures directly exerted on the student body and its politics (compare Mohamedbhai
2014; Trow 2006):
First, the democratic and egalitarian basis for massification tends to bring into sharper
focus persisting inequalities in access and success, thus producing more rather than
less pressures for further democratisation and social justice.
Second, the increasing diversity in the student body comes to reflect social cleavages
on campus based on socio-economic backgrounds, such as class, race, gender,
sexual orientation, ability, ethnicity, nationality, religion, ideology, and so forth,
thus introducing greater dissensus and ‘identity politics’ into student politics and
university politics.
Third, as higher education as an allocator of life chances becomes increasingly
important, the quality of credentials and relevance of qualifications in the labour
3. student representation in a conte xt of democratisation and massification in africa
market also increases. Graduate unemployment may become a serious concern
(cf. Trow 2006).
The first two pressures tend to transform the student movement from a focus on broader national
and social issues to foreground academic and day-to-day concerns of students. This has been
described recently as a ‘domestication of the student voice’ (Brooks et al. 2015) and may be
conceptualised in terms of a general re-orientation of the student movement to become more
‘etudialist’ (Altbach 1989). The latter pressure, however, is likely to increase competition
among students, heighten youth discontent, and may also produce an incentive for students
to extend their university career to become ‘permanent students’. Mugume (2015) has shown
the huge pressure on student leaders who aspire to become politicians to profile themselves
and be credentialed as student leaders to qualify as political leaders. Student politics may thus
become ‘captive’ to multi-party competition on campus, extreme partisanship and problematic
clientelist relations, all of which have various adverse effects on student representation
(Luescher-Mamashela & Mugume 2014; Mugume 2015). The following tentative proposition
is therefore suggested: a lack of consistency between democratisation in state and society and
at university level (in terms of enrolment and governance) produces the kind of contradictions
that give rise to high levels of student discontent and activism.
Student politics: Activism and representation
Student politics is typically used as an umbrella concept to refer to all political activities of
students in higher education. Numerous scholars attest to the typically oppositional nature of
student politics; they therefore tend to use the terms ‘student activism’ and ‘student political
activism’ to refer more specifically to oppositional and emancipatory student political protest
(e.g. Altbach 1989, 1991; Badat 1999; Munene 2003). The distinction between student
politics and student activism is, however, not a rigorous one in the literature.
Students tend to organise their politics by means of various kinds of student organisations
of an explicitly political or even partisan nature whereby the latter may be official branches, or
student or youth wings of national political parties. Students also organise on the basis of
regional, ethnic or religious groups, and as discipline-specific groups, sport codes, advocacy
and developmental groups and so forth, all of which may be national, inter-institutional or
institutional. Student organisations are usually voluntary membership organisations within the
student body. Compulsory or statutory affiliation of the student body to a student organisation
is only typical for institutional student unions/student guilds and some national student
associations or national student unions. A very specific type of student organisation is student
government which refers to the formal structure of student governance organised by students.
Student governments typically are officially recognised and mandated by a higher education
act or institutional charter or statute. They have the dual purpose of exercising authority over
student politics in africa: representation and activism
the student body, especially with respect to on-campus organising and extra-curricular activities
of students; and to represent the student voice vis-à-vis national and institutional authorities,
and the public.
Different forms of the representation of student interests invoke a distinction between
formal student representation and informal student activism. While the former refers to the
‘ordinary’ or ‘boardroom’-type politics of student involvement in governance structures and
committees, the latter refers to a broad spectrum of informal or ‘extraordinary’ protest action
(Pabian & Minksová 2011). As a way of conceptualising different kinds of student action,
Cele (2015) established a basic typology for the study of student politics.
Cele’s conceptualisation of student actions
Mlungisi Cele’s analysis of student action is set within the broader context of the democratisation
of state and higher education in South Africa’s first decade of democracy. As a means to analyse
the paradoxical nature of government policy and its effects on student politics, he adapts a
framework originally proposed by Wright et al. (1990) which consists of a typology of four ideal
types of student action: normative collective student action (Type 1), non-normative collective
student action (Type 2), normative individual student action (Type 3) and non-normative indivi-
dual student action (Type 4). The typology thus distinguishes on the one axis between normative
and non-normative action; and on the other axis between collective and individual forms of
action. Normative collective action could be conceptualised as ‘formal student representation’;
while non-normative collective action may serve as an analytic conception of student activism.4
As Cele (2015) has shown, the four different types of student action tend to be employed
by student leaders in a complementary fashion in pursuit of their interests. His study further
shows the importance of the national macro-political context, the institutional context and
the history and traditions of student politics for understanding student action. It also implies
a strong argument for the inclusion of students in university governance, both as a ‘politically-
realist response’ to student organising (Luescher-Mamashela 2013) as well as for the positive
contribution that student leadership can make in suggesting institutional conditions and
mechanisms that provide for ways to mitigate the adverse effects of institutional massification
in a context of strained public resources for working class students.
Altbachs theory of student activism5
Philip Altbach’s work on student activism spans over a half a century of scholarship that has
4 For an application of the framework see Cele et al. (2016: Chapter 9).
5 This section draws extensively on Luescher-Mamashela (2015).
3. student representation in a conte xt of democratisation and massification in africa
produced a comparative theoretical understanding of student activism (Luescher-Mamashela
2015). His theoretical insights may be summarised in relation to four questions:
Under what conditions does student activism emerge?
What are the typical characteristics of student organisations/movements?
What are the typical characteristics of student activists?
What are the effects of student activism?
Altbach’s responses to these questions involve a complex multi-level system of categorical
classification; he suggests propositions regarding the emergence, outcomes and impact of student
activism, the response to student activism, and the characteristic features of student organisations
and movements and of student activists.
Firstly, Altbach emphasises the need for sensitivity to different national and institutional
contexts, the characteristics of higher education, the backgrounds of student activists, and the
features characteristic of student organisations and movements. At the macro-political level,
the stage of political development, regime legitimacy and responsiveness of the political system
to political demands matters in understanding the emergence, nature, role and impact of
student activism. At the system level of higher education, certain characteristics inherent in
different national higher education systems and types of universities matter in understanding
student activism. At the level of the student community, typical characteristics of studentship,
such as its transient nature, are responsible for the peculiar features of student organisations
and movements. Furthermore, who the likely student activists are – and who are not – can in
part be explained by generalisations concerning the academic, socio-economic, political and
familial backgrounds of students. Altogether, these varied features need to be taken into
account when seeking to understand student activism.
Under what conditions does student activism emerge and succeed?
A crucial variable in the effectiveness and impact of student activism on society is the level
of legitimacy of the macro-political system compared to that of the student movement. This
argument emerges from Altbach’s analysis of the dramatic differences in the effect and success
of student activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s between industrialised ‘Western’ countries
and the ‘Third World’ (Altbach 1991: 256). One part of the argument is, as Altbach (1991:
250) put it, that ‘where student activism is traditionally accepted as a legitimate element of the
political system it is more likely to have an impact on society’. Thus, where regimes are facing
a legitimacy deficit – ‘such as in much of Eastern Europe, and in several western countries
during the 1960s’ – student activism can be significant and influential (1992: 142). In contrast,
student efforts to overturn the government seem both difficult and unnecessary in countries
with open and pluralistic systems of government (Moodie 1999).
Altbach’s analysis of the importance of the higher education context starts with the
student politics in africa: representation and activism
observation that academic life both permits and hinders student activism. On the one hand, it
provides considerable free time for students to live life at their own pace, build close-knit
communities with like-minded peers, and explore, debate and mobilise for new ideas. On
the other hand, studies also regulate life and follow a timetable, and exam periods can be
all consuming and make activism more difficult. At the system level of higher education,
one can say Altbach (1991) agrees with Trow that there is no conclusive argument whether
student activism is more typically a phenomenon characteristic of elite, mass or universal
higher education; student activism has been observed in all types even if its meaning may vary
(Trow 2006; also see below). However, there are certain characteristics inherent in different
national higher education systems, types of universities and disciplines of study that matter in
understanding student activism. Finally, the transient nature of the student population and
rapid turnover in student leadership make student movements difficult to sustain and create a
tendency for students to be impatient to see change. The proposition here is that the less
regulated (or more laissez-faire) the academic life of students, the more likely it is that student
movements will emerge and be sustained across several student generations, whereby traditions
of activism can be developed and maintained.
The extent to which a student movement can have nationwide reach depends on the size
and heterogeneity of the higher education system. In the large and heterogeneous American
(national) or European (supranational) system, organising a coherent student movement is
extraordinarily difficult (Moodie 1999. While this has improved with the creation of large
student federations such as the European Students’ Union (ESU), in very small national
systems made up of a handful of institutions, such as found in many developing countries,
organising a student movement of national impact is much easier.
Moreover, universities are inherently part of the activist equation in that politics is an
integral part of the creation and dissemination of knowledge. However, the type, size, prestige
and location of universities matters greatly. More prestigious institutions tend to attract
students from well-educated, urban families who are wealthier and more privileged than the
average student, and who frequently become student activists (Altbach 1992). In the same
institutions, they are also likely to come into contact with cosmopolitan, activist professors
(Altbach 1992). Moreover, studying in a university that is located close to the country’s capital
or major cities ‘gives students a sense that they are at the centre of power’ (Altbach 1991: 257);
it makes access to information and decision-makers easier and demonstrations are more likely
to receive national media coverage (which is very important in terms of getting a response).
In addition, students from some faculties and disciplines are more inclined towards activism
than others. Student activists tend to come from the social sciences and humanities as well as
from mathematics; least inclined towards activism are students from applied and professional
fields like commerce, engineering and agriculture (Altbach 1991, 1992; Lipset & Altbach 1969).
The reason for this pattern may be that (1) student activists self-select into the social sciences
because these disciplines focus on the study of society and social problems; (2) the subject matter
actually affects students and produces more radical views and a more activist inclination; and
3. student representation in a conte xt of democratisation and massification in africa
(3) the course of studies for regulated professions tends to be more structured and thus makes
it more difficult for students to ‘take a year off’ and come back to their studies (Altbach 1991).
This argument regarding the disciplinary specialisation of student activists may be
extrapolated to the institutional level to propose that the more vocationally or professionally
oriented the institution (e.g. a university of technology, a polytechnic), the less likely are
student movements to emerge from within it. This may further extend to system level, whereby
the related proposition would be that from the professionally oriented side of a binary system
of higher education, student activism is less likely to emerge. Similar questions arise with
regard to the question of student activism in private higher education which in the African
context tends to be vocationally oriented and often established by a religious institution.
What are the typical characteristics of student activists?
Many of the typical characteristics of student activists have already been mentioned; they are
part of Altbach’s sociological generalisations concerning the identity of ‘typical activists’. What
matters are: (1) the familial, socio-economic and political background, whereby in the US in
the 1960s student activists tended to come from more well-off, well-educated, urban families
that were supportive of activism; (2) minority groups tend to be overrepresented among
student activists; and (3) they tend to come from a small number of academic disciplines and
are among the academically best-performing students (Altbach 1991). Thus, the typical
student rebel is not representative of the student body; she or he is more likely part of a small
minority of the total student community. The transferability of these generalisations to the
African context will, of course, require empirical testing.
What are the typical characteristics of student organisations/movements?
The emergence of virtually mobilised youth and student movements observed, for example,
during the Arab Spring or more recently in the 2015 #RhodesMustFall protests at the University
of Cape Town and the South Africa-wide #FeesMustFall movement, and thus the impact of
ICTs and social networks like Facebook and Twitter on student activism post-date Altbachs
work and offer useful new material for theorising student movements. In Altbachs terms,
the dynamics of student movements are not unlike those of other social movements although
the specific aspects of campus life, e.g. an age-graded population, a fairly close community,
common social class backgrounds and other elements, make student movements somewhat
unusual (Altbach 1991). Foremost among the unique characteristics of student movements
is the transient nature of studentship, which has a powerful impact. Given the short life cycle
of student generations, lasting typically from three to five years only, student movements
tend to be short-lived and sporadic. This ‘fluidity’ makes their rise and demise difficult to
predict. Moreover, given the typical oppositional nature of student activism, student movements
tend to be reformist if not revolutionary in outlook, and in their ideological orientation reflect
student politics in africa: representation and activism
the commitments of the activists involved.
In his early writings, Altbach distinguished between different types of student movements
based on their ideological alignment, focus and orientation. In terms of topical focus, orientation
and scope of activity, Altbach distinguishes between ‘etudialist’ and ‘society-oriented’ student
movements. Etudialist movements are inward-oriented, primarily towards higher education
and student-related concerns. Conversely, society-oriented movements are concerned with
societal issues – political, social or cultural (Altbach 1964: 184). A second distinction is between
norm and value-based student movements which is important when considering current
concerns regarding the role of political parties in student politics in Africa. According to
Altbach (1964: 184), ‘student groups affiliated to political parties usually have a value
orientation and are often concerned with broader political issues’. Correspondingly, recent
studies in the African context show that party politics tend to introduce a complex dynamic
into student politics, which may compromise the representation of student-specific interests
(Luescher-Mamashela & Mugume 2014; also see Mugume & Katusiimeh 2016: Chapter 8).
Finally, Altbach makes an important point in his discussion of the classifications, arguing
that there is a great deal of correspondence between the two classifications, in that ‘there are
similarities between the norm-value distinction and the ‘etudialist’-society orientation of the
student movement’ (Altbach 1966: 184). The study by Jungblut and Weber (2012) on the
transformations of the German national student union over almost two decades suggests that
these distinctions and Altbach’s related proposition continue to be relevant. Altbach’s
groundwork can also be seen in the structural axis of Gill and De Fronzos (2009) classification
of student movements. Moreover, given that there are quite specific properties to each of
Altbach’s classifications, they offer good material for comparative analysis and systematic
empirical testing.
What are the effects of student activism?
Altbach is somewhat ambiguous as to the effectiveness of student activism, even if he
affirms that its overall cultural and political impact on higher education and society has been
highly significant (albeit more so in developing countries than in Europe and North America).
Altbach’s ambiguity may be understood in terms of his often-stated proposition that the
effectiveness of student activism is not so much determined by factors directly related to the
issues raised by students or the type of activism employed but determined to a large extent by
the response of other social groups in and outside the university and/or the response a student
movement receives from government (Altbach 1991; Altbach & Klemenčič 2014). To provoke
a response, the message of the activists must be disseminated which brings into sharp focus the
role of mass media (Altbach 1991; Lipset & Altbach 1966; Moodie 1999), and one may want
to add that of social media these days.
There is a range of typical responses to student activism on the part of government or
institutional managements: ignoring student activists, engaging and negotiating with them, or
3. student representation in a conte xt of democratisation and massification in africa
repressing activism to various degrees (Altbach 1991). According to Altbach (1991: 249–251),
the violent repression of student activism is often a factor in ‘increasing both the size and the
militancy’ of activist movements. As a short-term strategy, repression may work well; for the
long term, however, it may prove counterproductive by sowing ‘the seeds of later unrest’. In
this regard, it is proposed that the ways activists articulate their concerns may be conditioned
by the response they expect. A related and more general proposition is therefore that the
pattern of response to student activism determines the nature of future activism and ultimately
student political culture.
A key insight that may be derived from Altbach’s work on student activism is that a lack of
channels to pursue cooperative tactics and/or a lack of responsiveness to the use of cooperative
tactics may give rise to the pursuit of increasingly more confrontational ones. Studies on student
activism from various contexts therefore recommend the establishment of formal structures for
communicating and negotiating with student leaders as an appropriate response by university
authorities to reduce disruptive student activism on campus (Luescher-Mamashela 2013).
In this regard, Cele’s work on student politics (above) and Klemenčič’s analysis of student
organising (below) provide further insight. Moreover, Altbachs meta-analytical framework for
studying student politics, anticipates Clark’s work on analytical perspectives in higher education
governance (see below).
Klemenčič’s framework for investigating student organising
Manja Klemenčič’s theoretical framework for investigating student political agency builds on
Altbach’s pioneering work while also taking into account more recent theoretical insights into
the organisational dynamics of interest representation in policy networks, i.e. how ‘collective
student interests are aggregated and intermediated to other political actors within the higher
education or wider political context’ (Klemenčič 2014: 396). The framework has been elaborated
in the course of her analysis of three types of student organising: national student associations,
student movements, and institutional student governments (Klemenčič 2012, 2014). With
reference to national student associations, Klemenčič distinguishes between two key types:
interest group-type associations and student movement-type organisations. While the former
conception implies the existence of ‘[an] – implicit or explicit – exchange relationship between
the state and intermediary student associations’ (2014: 8), the conception of national student
associations as student movements/civil society organisations testifies to ‘a tendency toward
conflictual politics and non-institutionalised forms of claim-making, such as protests,
boycotts and campaigns’ (2014: 9). The two types are characterised in Table 4.
Klemenčič’s typology is theoretically founded in a framework originally developed by
Schmitter and Streek (1999) which proposes that the organisational characteristics of interest
representation organisations are affected by two sets of independent variables or ‘logics’, i.e. the
logic of membership and the logic of influence. According to Klemenčič (2012), representatives
student politics in africa: representation and activism
of national student associations have to operate on a ‘two-level game’ whereby they have to
simultaneously serve their members (i.e. the students or student organisations they represent)
in keeping with a logic of membership, as well as ensure that they represent them effectively
in relation to public authorities which, in turn, involves a process of adapting their modus
operandi in accordance with a logic of influence. The typology therefore provides not only a
way of classifying the complex and heterogeneous landscape of national student associations;
it also proposes ways of understanding how contemporary student organisations operate,
and why and how they change.6 The same framework may also be applied to the special case
of student governments. Here, Klemenčič suggests three sets of questions as a starting point
for an investigation: How do student governments operate? How do student governments
change? How do student governments matter in the context of higher education politics?
(Klemenčič 2014).
Table 4 Klemenčič’s typology of national student associations
National student associations
Qualifying factors Student associations as social movement
Student associations as interest groups
Organisational structure Network-like; loosely integrated; limited
functional differentiation
Hierarchically ordered with strong centralised
coordination; highly functionally differentiated
Internal resources Fluctuating administrative funding;
Secure administrative funding;
professionalised administration
Political agenda Transversal: next to sectorial also broader
political issues (solidarity, human rights,
social justice, egalitarian values,
democratisation, anti-globalisation)
Sectorial: focusing on organisation,
substance and processes of education
and student welfare issues
Mode of action Non-institutionalised forms of claim-
making: protests, boycotts, campaigns
Lobbying and political advocacy, services
Outputs Mobilisation capacity, expertise and
Representativeness (legitimisation capacity),
expertise and information, implementation
Examples of national
student associations
[in Europe]
UDU Italy; UNEF France; Fage France;
NSO Norway; NUS-UK; fzs Germany
Source: Klemenčič (2012: 8)
Clark’s analytical perspectives in higher education governance
Many studies of student representation draw on concepts developed in higher education
studies and especially the sociology of higher education that focus on understanding power
6 An application of the framework to the African higher education context is presented in Chapter 2 of this book.
3. student representation in a conte xt of democratisation and massification in africa
and authority in universities and systems of higher education. Burton Clark (1978) proposes
that studying academic authority involves taking account of
the multilevel nature of the organisation of knowledge production and, concomitantly,
the multilevel nature of authority in the sector;
the different stakeholders or role-players and their various interests, including the public
and national government, other social role-players, the professoriate and academic
staff, the university management, students, as well as non-academic staff;
the maze of formal arrangements and informal relations that simultaneously enable and
diffuse authority; and
the historical dimension and development of a particular university or system of
higher education.
Many studies of higher education governance apply Clark’s analytic perspectives along with a
governance perspective to higher education politics that may be called ‘institutionalist’ by
providing in-depth accounts of governance structures and processes, often with the purpose
of identifying and explaining shifts in governance. In keeping with theories developed in
the study of public management and political ethics, governance studies are often normative
in so far as they apply or seek to develop notions of ‘good governance’. They therefore also
include an interest in questions of political ethics and corruption. One of the most authoritative
studies of higher education governance in South Africa proposed that good university
governance involves an appropriate balance between representation and delegation, with
strong implementation capacity (Hall et al. 2004). Governance studies can also result in
guidelines to practitioners on how to conduct themselves as members of governing bodies.
Studying student representation involves taking account of the multiple levels of higher
education governance – from the classroom and student residence level to institutional
governance, and from national higher education policy-making to the international politics of
higher education funding, harmonisation, and development; it takes into account the identity
of different groups involved in governance and their respective power and authority in decision-
making; it studies the maze of formal arrangements and informal relations and dynamics that
characterise university governance and the participation of students therein; and ultimately it
is concerned with the nature of the rule systems that govern higher education and students
in particular.
Epsteins forms of authority in governing the university
In the analysis of university governance, Leon Epstein distinguishes four sources of authority
in the American university. Authority is typically defined as legitimate power, whereby the
legitimacy is derived from different sources which in one of the first definitions thereof,
student politics in africa: representation and activism
Max Weber proposed as personal charisma, tradition and the law. The latter ‘rational-legal’
authority, he argued, would eventually become the dominant source of legitimating power and
domination as, for instance, in the democratic selection of leaders in modern democracies. In the
academic realm, the various role-players in governance claim authority from different sources.
In Epsteins (1974) terms, the source of the authority of academics is their expertise and
position, which he refers to as academic ‘professorialism’. Clark adds a distinction between the
personal-professorial authority of academics; collegial-professorial authority; and a guild or
collective academic-professional authority of academics (Clark 1983). Epsteins authority of
academics in higher education is complemented (and contested) by the collective bargaining
power of unionised academics, which is more typically employed by junior academics.
Furthermore, Epstein defines ‘managerialism’ as university administrators’ source of authority
independent from that which they may derive from the authority of the university council or
board of trustees and that of the senate or academic board (1974). Rather, managerial authority
arises from ‘the public belief that administrators should have some university policymaking
responsibility’, from administrators’ expertise and their specialised ‘access to information’, and
‘their dual responsibilities to external and internal constituents’ which involves that university
administrators ‘often act creatively both to mediate and to formulate institutional policies
(1974: 100). Moreover, ‘trusteeship’ is Epsteins term for the source of authority that members
of university councils or boards of trustees have; and in a national system of higher education,
government derives its authority from the law, both in terms of a democratic mandate and as
governmental or bureaucratic authority.
In this maze of claims to power, the question is what power (if any) do students have?
Where does it derive from and how may it be employed? According to Epstein (1974), student
power arises primarily from ‘consumerism’ and may be employed in two ways: as the individual
consumer power of students (in terms of selecting and deselecting an institution, programme
or course) and the organised power of students. Luescher-Mamashela (2013) elaborated and
expanded on the different sources of student power with reference to four distinct claims and
various related arguments for, and against, student representation.
Luescher’s justifications for student representation7
Students’ claim to representation in decisions on higher education has been conceptualised by
Luescher-Mamashela (2013) in relation to different conceptions of ‘students’ and the student–
university relationship. The first way in which the case for student representation in university
decision-making is made focuses on the modern origins of student representation in student
activism. Students can be thought of as a (political) group or constituency on campus whose
7 This section draws extensively on Luescher-Mamashela (2013).
3. student representation in a conte xt of democratisation and massification in africa
demands and concerns must be addressed due to their ability to organise as a collective and
disrupt the academic functioning of the university by means of various kinds of protest
action. This ability to disrupt the academic process prompts a politically realist response of
seeking accommodation with an actual or potential adversary by formalising the expression
of student interests by means of an inclusion of student representatives in formal structures
and committees at various levels of governance.
A second claim for student representation is found in the consumerist case. It is based on
the argument that students are a special kind of client or consumer of educational products
and services whose claim for representation may be justified with reference to their immediate
and long-term interests in the price and quality of provision, and thus as a way of protecting
students’ interests in higher education. Representation is therefore justified as a means to
safeguard ‘affected interests’; this claim thus relates to Epsteins (1974) notion of ‘consumerism’.
Thirdly, conceiving of students as members of the academic community – however junior
and transient – is at the heart of the communitarian claim to student representation. Here,
emphasis is put on the notion of a ‘learning community’, and the learning process as a
collaborative activity, recognising that ‘both students and university bring resources to the
educational process, and that both make demands and levy expectations on each other during
that process’ (McCulloch 2009: 178). The communitarian case for student representation in
higher education governance is further reinforced with reference to democratic norms and values.
Fourthly, in democratic societies, higher education is not only a means to prepare young
people to perform specialist roles in the labour market; it is also an opportunity for developing
high-level citizenship competences such as critical thinking skills, leadership skills, diversity
and social skills (Bergan 2004; Luescher-Mamashela et al. 2015). Thus, student representation
may be justified in terms of broader and long-term perspectives of the social impact of higher
education, whereby students are seen as members of the broader political community of citizens,
and student participation in higher education politics in terms of political socialisation, as
‘an important opportunity to practice and nurture the habits of democratic life’ (Boland 2005:
214). This democratic case for student representation is frequently intertwined with other
consequentialist arguments regarding the benefits of student representation accruing to the
participating students themselves, the university and society.
All four cases or justifications involve good reasons for and against student representation
that do not need to be rehearsed here in detail8; taken together, they provide a ‘high-level
normative, complex set of criteria that can be applied at different organisational levels and in
the different domains of governance as part of an analytical framework’ (Luescher-Mamashela
2013: 11). In this regard the study of the changing role of student unions by Brooks et al.
(2015) shows ways of applying the framework to the study of the UK national student union.
Brooks et al. argue:
8 For a complete exposition of the different arguments, see Luescher-Mamashela (2013).
student politics in africa: representation and activism
It seems that a higher education sector that is market-based and consumer oriented
would tend to promote both a consumerist case for representation and a politically-
realist one – as, within highly competitive and consumer-led markets, disgruntled
and vociferous students can inflict significant harm to institutional reputation and
recruitment. [...] [Moreover,] it seems likely that when students’ unions become
subject to the same managerialist techniques as HEIs, it becomes less likely that they
will be motivated to act in a questioning and potentially critical manner. (Brooks
et al. 2015: 178–179)
Thus, Brooks et al. (2015: 179) conclude that ‘if representation is conceptualised through
“consumerist” and “political-realist” lenses, it can be seen as entirely consonant with the
marketised nature of contemporary higher education’. Provided that the different claims are
based on different conceptions of ‘students’, they also imply different conceptions of the student–
university relationship and therefore a typology of universities and university governance.
Olsens visions of the university, university governance and
student politics9
There is no shortage of different models of university governance in the higher education
literature. For instance, Grant Harman (in Clark & Neave 1992: 1282) distinguishes between
four main models of university governance:
1. the collegial model – emphasises non-hierarchical cooperative decision-making, and
a significant degree of self-determination by academic staff;
2. the bureaucratic model – emphasises legal-rational authority and formal hierarchies;
3. the professional model – emphasises the authority of experts and the importance of
horizontally differentiated units linked in loose confederations; and
4. the political model – conceptualises governance in terms of political conflict among
interest groups with competing views and values.
More recently Johan Olsen (2007: 28–33) elaborated four suggestive ‘visions’ or models of
university organisation and governance, based on different constitutive logics. They are the
university as ‘a rule-governed community of scholars’ which is characterised by shared norms and
objectives among key actors and governed by internal factors; the university as ‘an instrument
for shifting national political agendas’, where, in a context of shared norms and objectives,
external factors dominate the operations and dynamics of the university; the university as
a representative democracy’, where internal factors and conflicting norms and objectives
9 This section draws extensively on Luescher (2008).
3. student representation in a conte xt of democratisation and massification in africa
amongst key actors dominate the governance of the university; and the university as ‘a service
enterprise embedded in competitive markets’, which is characterised by conflicting norms and
objectives among key actors and a predominance of external factors in the governance of the
operations and dynamics of the university (see also Luescher 2008). Olsens conceptualisation
of the four visions is outlined in detail in Table 5.10
Table 5 Four visions of university organisation and governance
University operations and dynamics
are governed by internal factors
University operations and dynamics
are governed by environmental factors
Actors have shared
norms and objectives
The University is a rule-governed
community of scholars
Constitutive logic: Identity based on
free inquiry, truth finding, rationality
and expertise.
Criteria of assessment:
Scientific quality.
Reasons for autonomy:
Constitutive principle of the University
as an institution: authority to the best
Driven by the internal dynamics of
science. Slow reinterpretation of
institutional identity. Rapid and radical
change only with performance crises.
The University is an instrument for
national political agendas
Constitutive logic:
Administrative: Implementing
predetermined political objectives.
Criteria of assessment:
Effective and efficient achievement
of national purposes.
Reasons for autonomy:
Delegated and based on relative efficiency.
Political decisions, priorities, designs as a
function of elections, coalition formation
and breakdowns and changing political
Actors have conflicting
norms and objectives
The University is a representative
Constitutive logic:
Interest representation, elections,
bargaining and majority decisions.
Criteria of assessment:
Who gets what: Accommodating internal
Reasons for autonomy:
Mixed (work-place democracy, functional
competence, real politik).
Depends on bargaining and
conflict resolution and changes
in power, interests, and alliances.
The University is a service enterprise
embedded in competitive markets
Constitutive logic:
Community service. Part of a system
of market exchange and price systems.
Criteria of assessment:
Meeting community demands. Economy,
efficiency, flexibility, survival.
Reasons for autonomy:
Responsiveness to ‘stakeholders’
and external exigencies, survival.
Competitive selection or rational learning.
Entrepreneurship and adaptation to
changing circumstances and sovereign
Source: Olsen (2007: 30)
10 An application of Olsen’s model to the study of student representation in Ethiopia is presented by Ayele (2016, in Chapter 7 of this book).
student politics in africa: representation and activism
For the study of student representation, the limitation of Olsens and other typologies is
that the place of students in university governance seldom figures as a topic. However, several
recent adaptations and applications of Olsen’s visions to the study of student politics have
produced theoretical frameworks from which it is possible to generate hypotheses related to
student politics. Among them are the application by Minksová and Pabian (2011) and
adaptation by Luescher (2008) and Luescher-Mamashela (2010). The latter relates the four
visions to respective conceptions of ‘students’ (such as those involved in different justifications
for student representation outlined above) and modifies them to suit a study in the South
African context. The resulting typology is presented in Table 6.11
Table 6 Visions of the university and student governance
vision Regime type
Source of
Definition of
of students
Mode of
student politics
of Scholars
(based on
expertise and
internal to
peers and
stratified by
rank and office
and junior
members in
the academic
Very limited
formal student
student political
activism is
largely absent
Trust (and
with external
Mainly external
to national or
and complicit
and future
elite of the
Limited formal
of students;
forms of
student activism
(to key internal
internal to
A constituent
group within
the university
of student
high levels of
student activism
(based on
a long-term
view of value
for money)
Mainly external
to the market
and users
provisions for
on service
and student
rights; very
limited political
political apathy
Source: Luescher (2008: 58)
11 The following sections are based on Luescher (2008) and Luescher-Mamashela (2010).
3. student representation in a conte xt of democratisation and massification in africa
The community of scholars
The traditional vision of the university as a community of scholars is institutionalised in terms
of governance in the disciplinary chair-based authority of professors which extends in diverse
practices of ‘academic rule’ (Moodie 1996) to the governance of the core academic business of
the university as well as related matters, especially by means of the constitution of the academic
Senate. Hierarchies of academic seniority and rank define hierarchies of authority. In the
community of scholars, the university administration is deliberately staffed with ‘amateurs
and kept small and subordinate to the professoriate. The universitys board of trustees or
council acts as a buffer between the self-governing academic community and its external
environment. Internally, the academic community is highly stratified with students conceived
of as ‘apprentice-scholars’ and ‘junior members of the community’. The educational function
of the community of scholars is primarily intellectual formation and moral education. Hence,
academic authority typically extends to the student domain and over students’ private affairs.
In the academic process, students as ‘novices’ or ‘apprentices’ are subject to the instruction and
academic authority of the professor; in their private lives students as ‘minors’ are subject to the
university’s moral instruction and responsibility in loco parentis. Thus, in terms of this vision
of the university, student demands for representation in university decision-making – if they
arise – are disqualified by students’ lack of academic expertise and maturity. This is an
‘aristocracy of competence’ (Wolff 1969: 114) in which student representation runs contrary
to the principle of professional competence and academic authority.
The prestigious national university
The university as an instrument for national political agendas’ source of governance legitimacy
is compliance with national directives. This is the prestigious national university; an instrument
for the nation and training ground for the future cultural, political and professional elite of the
nation or a specific group within a nation, e.g. an ethnic or religious group. Thus, not a critical
and disinterested distance from the national project but rather a whole-hearted embracing
of its ideological character and programme defines the university’s role among a range of
instruments to be coordinated and directed by the nation-state and its embeddedness in its
political and cultural dynamics. Considerable variations in the fashioning of the alignment
between university and nation-state may be evident; yet governance of the prestigious national
university is based on a logic of trust. Accordingly, the faculty and the university administration
are to be screened, appointed by, and answerable to, the nation-state. Formally constituted
university governing bodies serve to ensure the university’s compliance with national directives
facilitated by close ties with, and allegiance to, the dominant political elite. Students of the
prestigious national university are supposed to comply voluntarily and uncritically with
received rules administered in a traditional manner. Successful university education guarantees
upward social mobility. Student leaders (especially those from elite backgrounds) may be
student politics in africa: representation and activism
co-opted into a limited number of governance forums; yet, real decision-making happens
elsewhere. The purpose of student representation in such bodies is to socialise students into the
way ‘we’ do things. Thus, student life is embedded in national life; it is directed in a paternalistic
manner and embraces every aspect of the person. Students may be encouraged to involve
themselves in national youth organisations (including officially sanctioned political organisations)
which operate branches on campus. Student activism is therefore limited, albeit certain student
groupings or national youth movements with a close relationship with national leadership
orchestrate officially sanctioned forms of activism; conversely, oppositional and excluded
groups may occasionally stage protests. University oversight of student affairs is justified with
reference to the in loco parentis rule whereby ‘elders’ take on the responsibility of guiding
students towards their future role in the nation.
The university as representative democracy
The ideal-type model of the university as a representative democracy co-governed by key
constituencies – i.e. the stakeholder university – envisions the university as composed of, and
accountable to, a range of internal constituencies, including senior faculty, junior academic
staff, students, non-academic staff, management and unions. The governance regime of the
stakeholder university derives its legitimacy from accountability to these various internal
constituencies.12 They all seek to participate and predominate in a culture of decision-making
that is characterised by negotiation and bargaining. The stakeholder model of university
governance actively facilitates various forms of student representation in university decision-
making. To the extent that students are recognised as a key constituent group of the university,
student leaders and representatives are entitled to participate in almost every forum, board,
and committee as equal members. The corporatist orientation of the stakeholder university
provides extensive scope for student self-government in the extra-curricular student domain.
Moreover, the importance that is afforded to the involvement of student representatives has a
number of structuring effects on the organisation of student politics. Firstly, the stakeholder
university is characterised by a highly politicised student body. There is fierce political
competition between different student groups to obtain a leadership mandate from the student
body. Secondly, students in general tend to have a high sense of entitlement, and the official
student representatives enjoy many perks and incentives. This can deteriorate and take on the
character of patron–client relationships between university leaders and student leaders, student
leaders and political parties, and student leaders and key members of the student body at
another level. Thirdly, student government is highly centralised to ensure the coordination
of student groupings and organisations in a union-like fashion. The universitys student
organisations tend to include a disproportionate number of student political organisations
12 The notion of ‘stakeholder’ employed here draws on Morrow’s (1998) work on stakeholder political theory in the context of higher
education governance.
3. student representation in a conte xt of democratisation and massification in africa
which compete amongst each other to obtain the leadership mandate from the student body,
making for high levels of student political activism.
The market-oriented university
Finally, the ideal-type of a market-oriented university – or service enterprise as Olsen would
have it – envisions the university as a commercial educational service provider that competes
in the local and international higher education market. Scholarly traditions, academic
hierarchies and discipline-based organisation are replaced by a corporate mission that commits
the university to entrepreneurialism and identifies the market-niche for the higher educational
and research services. The teaching services and research services and outputs are conceived
as commodities to be branded with the reputation of the university and marketed to appeal to
the specific demands of the particular client segments that the institution targets. The market-
oriented university must be attuned to the market’s perception of value for money for its
products, that is a perception linked to the university’s reputation and global ranking (Salerno
2007). Governance of the market-oriented university needs above all to be able to respond
swiftly and effectively to new demands in the market. Accordingly, the university needs to be
run on the principles of efficient management as a tight business operation. Senior professional
managers form the core of the university and ensure institutional survival and growth in
an environment of competition and great flux; other staff, both academic and administrative,
are accountable to senior management via their line managers. Efficiency and effectiveness,
performance management, productivity and marketability are the key principles that ensure
the financial viability or even profitability of the enterprise. Traditional committee systems
are done away with or re-fashioned to serve as trial audiences for product innovations proposed
by the management and as advisory bodies inter alia to provide feedback on service levels
and customer satisfaction. The executive management of the market-oriented university
functions as the equivalent of a board of directors; it directs an appointed senior management
with a staff complement engaged in various educational core and non-core services. Academic
programmes managers are in charge of teaching provision and coordinate the deployment
of contracted teachers. Within this management structure, there is little place for traditional
discipline-based departments; teaching is programme-related and research is project-based.
Teachers and researchers are predominantly contract-based employees with only a small
proportion of accomplished full-time academics as members of educational programmes or
research-oriented institutes which have a life span as long as their financial viability extends.
There is no need for any real sense of an academic community; this is a firm and the relationship
of academic staff to the corporation is determined by the employment contract. Students as
clients understand the university as a service provider. They seek credentials ahead of entering
the labour market or qualifying for a professional career; there is little space for social or
political activism, lest it is motivated by the incentive of adding value to educational credentials.
There may be little or extensive formal provision for student representation; yet, this tends in
student politics in africa: representation and activism
practice to be limited to representation on immediate concerns. The student body is a
heterogeneous aggregate of individuals and highly fragmented. Student clubs and societies
(where they exist) are typically part of the university’s service palette and may be part of the
strategic marketing of the institution or to enhance rapid student throughput (e.g. with a focus
on student engagement). Student political activism is very limited and ad hoc; students are
typically politically apathetic and focused on achieving their qualification in minimum time.
Heuristic frameworks based on typologies such as Olsens and its adaptation and extension
by Luescher offer lenses suitable for the interpretation of the diversity of empirical forms
of student representation and changes in university governance as well as material for the
development of related testable hypotheses.
Trow: Institutional diversity and the meanings of student representation
Martin Trow’s perspective on massification and its implications was discussed in the first section
of this chapter. What remains to be considered is his discussion of the meanings of student
representation in different systems and institutions, specifically in the light of Mohamedbhai’s
comment that ‘a system that has achieved a mass or universal status can still have, within it, an
elite sub-system [...] in which elite and so-called world-class universities exist as separate entities
within an overall mass or universal higher education system’ (2014: 63).
Correspondingly, Cloete et al. (2015) argue that in a massified but differentiated higher
education system, the diversity of HEIs can – or even should – include elite-type ‘flagship
universities because the contradictory functions of higher education cannot be served by
a single university alone but require a diversity of institutions. The key learning is that
understanding the meaning of student representation in a differentiated and diverse system of
higher education requires sensitivity to the complexities of institutional functions, histories
and context. More generally Trow notes in this regard that
‘student participation’ in the governance of a small elite institution marked by high
value consensus may in fact be merely the participation of the most junior members
of a genuine academic community, held together by shared values regarding
academic life. By contrast, ‘student participation’ in a large mass institution, marked
by value dissensus may heighten the kind of interest in ideological conflicts that
academic institutions, whatever their size or character, have great difficulty in
containing or resolving. (Trow 2006: 262)
Thus, arguments based on the experience of a small number of elite institutions should not be
applied indiscriminately across a whole system because student representation in university
governance ‘may have very different meaning and consequences in different kinds and phases
of higher education’ (Trow 2006: 262).
3. student representation in a conte xt of democratisation and massification in africa
#RhodesMustFall and the analysis of contemporary student
politics in Africa
The #RhodesMustFall protests at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in March/April 2015
can serve as a contemporary case for illustrating the relevance of key concepts, analytical
approaches and theoretical perspectives available to the study of student politics. In the course
of March 2015 calls amongst student groups at UCT became increasingly stronger for the
removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes13 that towered as a centre piece on the famous
Jameson Steps of the Upper Campus, from where it oversaw – contemplating – the ‘African
hinterland’. The statue became the focal point of black student protests against the legacy of
British imperialism, apartheid, capitalist exploitation of Africans and lack of transformation
evident in contemporary institutional commemoration, the institutional culture and ‘whiteness’
of the university, as well as the demographic make-up of UCT staff and the content of the
curriculum. Media coverage of the protests on a national and international scale started with a
student soiling the Rhodes statue with human waste on 9 March. A #RhodesMustFall Facebook
page was set up, YouTube clips of the protests and related Twitter handles went viral, and
within a few days, open lectures, dialogues and so forth culminated in a protest movement that
gained enough momentum that UCT’s vice-chancellor declared under some duress on 18
March that he had come to believe that the statue should be removed (Legg & Bester 2015).
Following more protest action in support of the removal of the statute at the university’s
main management building on 20 March, the SRC and other students and staff groupings
of the university occupied parts of the Bremner Building (renamed ‘Azania House’) and started
a sit-in that lasted over 20 days. During that period, the senate of the university met and
recommended the removal of the statue, which, in addition to support from staff, student
bodies, alumni and convocation, and the institutional forum, persuaded the university council
at a special meeting on 8 April, to resolve unanimously
as an expression of Council’s renewed commitment to the project of transformation
at UCT, to (a) apply to Heritage Western Cape for the permanent removal of the
statue and (b) authorise the administration to arrange for the temporary removal of
the statue for safe keeping. (Price 2015: 2)
The vice-chancellor subsequently committed to create a forum for setting the agenda for
transformation and action; concluding a review of all symbols and names on the campus by
the end of 2015; create a space for black academic staff to address issues of staff transformation;
and expand the university’s curriculum review task team to include students and address the
demands for an ‘Africanisation’ of the curriculum (Price 2015). Support for the protest was
13 Cecil John Rhodes’ association with the University of Cape Town and the former Cape Colony is a very close one and interlaced with
the role he played on the continent. UCT acquired the site of its upper campus on the slopes of Table Mountain from Rhodes’ estate
along with large bequests granted to the university.
student politics in africa: representation and activism
forthcoming even from the national minister of higher education and training who viewed it as
an opportunity to engage in frank discussions on race and transformation (and subsequently,
in October 2015, convened a national higher education summit to discuss these and related
matters). Eventually, the dynamic protests spread to other university campuses where related
questions of institutional culture came into sharp focus (e.g. the language policy of Afrikaans/
English dual-medium universities such as the University of Stellenbosch and the University of
the Free State), while also sparking isolated incidents of vandalism towards some statues in the
public sphere along with encouraging nation-wide discussions on the ‘unfinished business’ of
the South African post-apartheid transition (cf. Haffajee 2015). #RhodesMustFall also became
an inspiration to the nation-wide student protests of October 2015 against the cost of higher
education and for free higher education for the poor, coined #FeesMustFall.
An analysis of the #RhodesMustFall activism at UCT in terms of the conditions of its
emergence, the characteristics of the protest movement and protesters, and its outcomes and
wider impact, can usefully be informed by analytical frameworks that can account for the
multi-levelled nature of higher education policy-making in the context of South African
society, the present context of higher education development and the University of Cape Town
as a ‘flagship’ elite institution on the continent. Why did the formal governance structures of
the university require to be moved into action by protests? Were formal interest aggregation
and intermediation mechanisms ineffective?
The role of leadership both on the side of students (and supportive staff) as well as the
university management seems crucial in both escalating and containing the protests. There
were ongoing conversations between the university’s top management and the SRC as noted in
vice-chancellor Max Price’s statement that there had been agreements between the university
management and SRC on, for instance, the occupation of the Bremner Building and the
end of the occupation once the statue had been removed (Price 2015). Even when the first
agreement was breached, the university leadership decided not to escalate the conflict by
calling police onto campus to remove the students. Rather:
Although the terms of agreement were breached, the protests remained generally
peaceful and dignified, with numerous educational activities taking place in the
Mafeje Room [i.e. the senate chamber in the Bremner Building] at all hours of the
day and night. […] Our task has been to defend the idea of a university as a space
of debate […]. We believe that this deliberative process to engage UCT stakeholders
on the issue of the Rhodes statue and on wider issues of transformation at UCT was
successful. […] The sufficient consensus that we eventually achieved across the many
races, class, generational, and professional divides, is a vindication of the process and
of the university as a space for rational discussion. (Price 2015: 1)
Altbach’s work, as discussed above, provides suggestive answers to the question why it would
be the University of Cape Town rather than, for instance, the University of Zululand, which
3. student representation in a conte xt of democratisation and massification in africa
became the hotbed of student activism on matters of institutional culture and educational
transformation in 2015. What is the place of sociological characteristics of protesters –
#RhodesMustFall as a movement of mostly middle-class, black ‘born frees’? – in trying to
understand the activism; the significance of this generation’s disillusion with the current
conjuncture of stalled macro-economic development, a regressive macro-political democratisation
process and the realisation that the ‘economic benefits’ of democracy continue to be unequally
distributed in this highly unequal society plagued by high levels of poverty, inequality and
unemployment; the higher education context itself, the inadequacy of public funding for
universities and the student financial aid scheme in the process of an ongoing expansion of
higher education to include more black and female students: its massification and the
diversification of the student body; and then the key issue of institutional culture and its
transformation to reflect a new African reality even at UCT. Finally, we would want to analyse
the (lack of) responsiveness of institutional governance structures to student demands, the
effectiveness of student representatives’ articulation and intermediation of the student voice in
formal UCT governance, and the dynamics of vacillating between formal decision-making
structures and protest action in Cele’s terms. What will be the wider impact and legacy of the
protests? Moreover, unlike on other African university campuses where student protests quickly
turn violent, lead to harm to persons and the destruction of property, marred by police
incursion, resulting in student rustication, expulsions, criminal proceedings and even student
deaths, how is it that at the University of Cape Town a protest on such a large scale and so
disruptive to the institutional management was conducted without escalating into violence
(albeit there were eventually police incursions, some student and staff arrests and disciplinary
proceedings against some protest participants), and it issued in a fairly acceptable and speedy
outcome, a reassertion of the authority of formal governance structures, that is the UCT
senate, SRC, the institutional forum, the university council, and the senior management, and
a national Minister, who rather than seeking to take control of it, used the protests to emphasise
his government’s broader agenda for transformation? What roles did political parties and their
student organisations play, some of which rallied to be associated with it or even take ownership
of it? And how can we understand the interplay between cyberspace mobilising and the local
protests and student organising? Raising these questions alone illustrates the potential of
conducting theoretically informed analyses of student activism and representation.
Students are and act as a discernible yet internally diverse political group (or groups) in
academic life and in the political life of the higher education polity and beyond; they are the
largest constituency in higher education and, albeit transient and in qualification and expertise
junior to academics and managers, higher education is for and of students. Harold Perkin
showed that the first model of the renaissance university – the University of Bologna of
student politics in africa: representation and activism
13th-century Italy – was a ‘student university’ in which students controlled the institution,
including the organisation of their studies (Perkin 2006). This archetype of university
organisation and governance is certainly a long time past, and the global success that the
university represents as one of the most enduring institutions of society has come along with
many transformations. Nonetheless, unless students have ownership of their higher education
and are acknowledged as co-responsible for learning and indeed ‘co-producers of knowledge’
(Carey 2013) learning remains surface and evanescent. Studies of student engagement show
precisely that the more students are in control of their own learning, actively engaged,
collaboratively involved and interacting with their lecturers, the more we see higher education
succeed (Luescher-Mamashela et al. 2015; Strydom & Mentz 2010). It is not accidental that
the freedoms of all involved in academic activity – universally known as academic freedom -
encompasses not only a high degree of self-control over one’s scholarly work in a narrow sense
but also academic rule, known variably as ‘shared governance’ or ‘co-operative governance’,
which ought to involve students meaningfully in governing higher education (Moodie 1996).
Moreover, student politics and student representation are also about citizenship and democracy
in the academic polity and beyond. The study of democratisation shows that democracy
has many positive outcomes and attributes: it improves the lives of people in various ways,
including a better protection and respect for human rights, higher levels of socio-economic
development, lower levels of inequality and a reduction in extreme levels of poverty, more
ecologically responsible behaviour, and increased levels of happiness and life satisfaction
(Haerpfer et al. 2009: 1)14 Recent studies conducted by the HERANA network into the
relationship between student representation, student engagement and citizenship competences
show precisely that there is a ‘democratic dividend’ to engaging students politically on campus
(Luescher-Mamashela et al. 2015).
The purpose of this chapter has been to invite thinking about the participation of students
in higher education governance by outlining key concepts, analytical perspectives and
theoretical frameworks and concerns that may be relevant to understanding student politics in
the context of democratisation and the massification of higher education in Africa. The chapter
has shown that there is a rich set of conceptual tools available for theoretically pertinent
empirical analyses of student politics in Africa. In the bigger picture, the implicit argument
is that the traditional historical-narrative approach to African social science so evident also
in the study of student politics is not enough. The approach of creating periodised accounts
of messy history may provide retrospective insights that allow us to discern the factors at play
for understanding social phenomena in a particular period of history; yet, as much as good
contextualisation and the discernment of continuities and discontinuities is necessary, it is not
a sufficient task of social science. Several theorists on matters of higher education governance
14 It must be noted that there is some scepticism with respect to a number of these long-term statistical findings. While democracies
tend to perform better than dictatorships in many dimensions, it is not so clear, for example, whether democracy promotes economic
development or whether economic development promotes democracy, and what the exact relationship is between democracy,
economic equality and poverty levels (Haerpfer et al. 2009).
3. student representation in a conte xt of democratisation and massification in africa
and student politics insist on good contextualisation as a starting point; social science provides
and creates conceptual tools at the levels of classification and analysis, as well as theoretical and
explanatory frameworks that, however preliminary, make suggestion for a deeper conceptual
understanding and for explaining and even tentatively anticipating social reality. Taking the
study of higher education governance and student politics in Africa seriously will require
an ongoing dialogue with various disciplinary perspectives and the analytical approaches
and theoretical frameworks they offer.
I would like to thank the participants of the international seminar on higher education and
development organised by the Centre for Research into Higher Education and Development
of the University of the Free State for their insightful questions and comments on an early draft
of this chapter. I would also like to acknowledge Mr Taabo Mugumes research assistance
during the final stages of producing this paper.
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Ibrahim Oanda
Background and introduction
In 2010, the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA)
commissioned studies in Ghana, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, examining, among other
themes, the participation of students in the governance processes of universities, and what the
level of participation means for the quality and academic mission of the universities. This chapter
summarises the findings of the studies, augmented by findings of other studies in this area.1
A discussion on the nature of student representation in African universities has to be
approached from two facets, based on historical and contemporary trajectories. The first is to
look at how the whole body of students as elite, has constituted itself to be the conscience of
society, and the greater social good in their engagement both with the universities and the
political system. The second is to examine the organisational spaces provided to students to
organise and protect their interests, both welfare and academic, within the institutions. Both
these two notions of student representation are replete in the literature and will be explored in
this chapter.
1 The author has undertaken research in this area, including Implications of Privatisation and Private Higher Education on Access and
Knowledge Production in Kenya (CODESRIA 2008); Management and governance reforms in public universities in East Africa and
the challenges to nurturing and sustaining academic leadership (on-going research); and Comparing the Nature and Implications of
Corporatisation Trends in Public Universities in East Africa (CODESRIA, in press).
student politics in africa: representation and activism
Universities in Africa have gone through three phases of transformation that have had
implications for the nature and quality of student participation in university governance. The
first phase revolves around the time when the institutions were set up during the period of
late colonialism as institutions affiliated to universities in Europe. The second phase starts
from the 1970s, when after independence most African countries transformed the institutions
into national universities. This transformation, actualised through Acts of parliament, entailed
a redefinition of the relationship between university governance organs and the state and the
role of student representation in such structures. The third phase begins around the 1980s; a
period of increased demand and expansion of university education amid economic austerity,
the gradual privatisation of public universities and the establishment of private universities.
This phase has also entailed a change in the overall governance frameworks that established
most of the universities in the 1960s and 1970s as national institutions, to a new regime where
universities operate within charters under the overall oversight of higher education councils.
Both these trends have changed the terrain of governance cultures in the institutions, especially
the place of students and their representatives in influencing governance and management
decisions. Of particular interest have been the redefinition of students in universities within an
entrepreneurial frame and the renunciation of student politics as activism and framing the
same as part of the problems affecting higher education institutions. Hence, for transformation
related to the entrenchment of entrepreneurial cultures to succeed, the old political model of
university governance that provided much space for student input into the governance process
has had to be dismantled.
This chapter analyses trends in the historical evolution of policies and practices for student
participation in African universities. An examination of the institutional structures that have
been provided to support student participation in university governance, including sources of
funding, the influence of students’ voice in management decisions and overall implications
is conducted. It is important in this regard to reflect on the internal organisation of student
councils, especially with regard to participation and representation in student structures and
internal procedures. How student representatives are identified and elected and how students
politics is regulated within the institutions will form an important component of this section.
Lastly, the current state of student representation in Africa, including legal frameworks and other
provisions and how they influence the quality of student representation is discussed, especially
in the context of the increasing growth and differentiation of higher education institutions.
The chapter is presented in three parts. Part one looks at the historical context within
which student participation in university governance in Africa has evolved, tracing this to the
establishment of universities in Africa during the period of late colonialism, as overseas colleges
of universities in Europe. Part two analyses the dynamics of student participation, from the
1970s with the increasing establishment of universities as national projects. Part three looks
at the period from the 1980s, and the economic crisis that faced African states, leading to the
imposition of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) and the subsequent introduction of
user fees in higher education institutions. It further explores the 1990s period, which saw the
4. the evolving nature of student participation in university governance in africa
establishment of more public universities, the establishment of private universities and the
subsequent segmentation of the student body into public and private students.
Lastly, the current state of student representation in African universities is discussed. These
phases and developments have contributed to reshape the nature of student participation in
ways that have often brought to fore the question as to the real beneficiaries of the engagements:
the state, the universities and their academic missions, or the student population.
Establishment of universities in Africa and the nature of
student representation
There is some historical documentation to show that even before the formal establishment of
higher education institutions in Africa student politics formed an important component of
Africans’ agitation for independence and for increased higher education. The earliest known
student organisations however seem to have started not in Africa, but in the metropolitan
capitals of European countries, among African students who had had the privilege of travelling
abroad for higher education. The focus of these earlier forms of student politics was the issue
of student welfare. For example, in London, there emerged the Union of African Descent
(UAD) founded in 1917, the Gold Coast Students’ Union (GCSU) in 1924, the Nigerian
Progress Union (NPU) in 1924, and finally the West African Students’ Union (WASU),
the most important of all, in 1925 (Boahen 1994). WASU’s prominence as a student union
emanated from the fact that the organisation was able to weave its student activities into the
anti-colonial struggles. Most of the leaders of the Union, such as Kwame Nkrumah, later
became political leaders of their countries. As WASU spread throughout West Africa, the link
between the diaspora and the African continent became essential as an axis of anti-colonial
activism, and thus, perhaps, prepared the ground for the involvement of student leaders in
politics in Africa.
The quest for representation from these early student movements was mainly focused on
pursuing social and cultural rather than political objectives (Boahen 1994) and agitating for
better conditions for students and quality education; the kind of welfare issues that have come
to be dismissed as parochial by neo-liberal higher education politics. The issues that have come
to define student politics, and for which their representation in university governance or
management to date is rationalised, still featured then. For example, African students in Europe
were concerned with welfare issues such as the acquisition of hostels and accommodation, the
organisation of holiday camps, employment, scholarships, and student welfare and, above all, the
ending of racial discrimination and the education of Europeans in African history and culture
to counteract prevailing racist views about the inferiority of the African (Boahen 1994).
The number of African student movements increased rapidly after the Second World War,
owing mostly to the increased number of students who were able to access higher education
abroad and the increasing establishment of university colleges in the colonies. In British
student politics in africa: representation and activism
colonial Africa, the Phelps-stokes, De La Warr, Channon, Elliot and Asquith commissions
recommended and finally resulted in a number of university colleges being established in
Africa. The University College of Ghana started in October 1948 with 92 students using the
one million pounds sterling from the funds of the Cocoa Marketing Board. The University
College of Ibadan opened in January 1948 with 148 students, the Khartoum University
College opened in 1947, while the University College of Makerere opened in 1949 for East
Africa, complemented by the Royal Technical College, Nairobi (Mngomezulu 2010).
The Asquith Commission had recommended that the elevation to university status in the
British colonies, which produced the university colleges of Ghana, Makerere, Ibadan, and
Khartoum, should be in a scheme of special relation with the University of London, in order
to ensure the quality of the degrees granted, and ascertain that they achieved academic
standards equal to those of universities and university colleges in Britain (Montani 1979). This
meant that the new university colleges had to have almost the same standards of governance as
in Britain and the University of London had the responsibility to oversee that such standards
were maintained. To this end, while the University College of London accepted this responsibility,
one of the conditions it laid down was that the constitution of the governing bodies of the
institutions, their charters and statutes or other instruments of government had to be such
that an appropriate and autonomous university capable of controlling the development of its
academic policy was envisaged, for example, through encouragement of corporate and social
life among students (Report of the Working Party on Higher Education in East Africa 1955). The
idea was that the qualifications available at the university colleges and nature of student life
were to be in no way inferior to the best obtainable abroad. It can then be argued that from
their inception in Africa, at least during their nascent stage, universities and colleges provided
some space for student activities to keep in tune with the culture of universities in Europe
to which they had been linked. Chilver (1957), in commenting on the student conditions at
Makerere College Uganda noted that certain features peculiar to English university life had
been replicated, such as the allocation of each student to a hall of residence under a resident
warden, who was concerned with the students’ moral welfare, and to an academic tutor
responsible for reporting on their progress. He also noted the existence of an active students
council, the Makerere College Guild, to which numerous student societies and clubs were
affiliated, among them political, musical and historical societies, and an Inter-tribal Society
which sought to break down tribal prejudices. He observed that the college had several playing
fields for football, hockey, cricket and other sports, organised by the students themselves.
Boahen (1994) finds that nearly all the British colonies in Africa saw the emergence of one
or two student movements or unions by students of the new university colleges that were created
at the time, such as the Tanganyika African Welfare Society founded by the students of
Makerere College in Uganda and the National Union of Ghana Students (NUGS) formed
in 1959.
The issues that student movements engaged with then were both welfare-related and
political. Byaruhanga (1996) shows that the first significant protest by students of Makerere
4. the evolving nature of student participation in university governance in africa
College in 1952 was triggered by food-related complaints. Later, students engaged in political
and ideologically inspired protests focusing on broader anti-colonial and pan-African struggles
taking place on the continent in the 1960s. It can be generally observed from the literature
available that most student organisations in Africa before the 1960s were established and
organised around the broader nationalist programme of decolonisation and nation-building;
a linkage which gave the organisations especially within the first decade of independence a
legacy of strong student unionism, student political activism and idealistic radicalism
(Olugbade 1990).
Beyond this engagement with welfare and broader pan-Africanist issues, Boahen (1994)
notes that from 1960 to 1970 when most African countries gained independence, student
movements in British colonial Africa (Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda and Sierra Leone) were
marked by a low degree of politicisation or lack of political activism. Generally during this period,
the number of university institutions was comparatively low and colonial relations dominated
students’ engagements at the pan-African level. At the end of the 1960s student ideology
became increasingly inspired by Marxism-Leninism and Maoism as well as leftist politics. For
example in 1967, university students at the then University College of Dar es Salaam formed
the University Students African Revolutionary Front (USARF), an internationalist group that
called for reforms within the university to meet national development goals (Douglas 2007).
The USARF criticised the university system, the largely expatriate faculty, and the exclusion of
socialist thought in the curriculum. They maintained that as long as neo-colonialist, Western
professors dominated the teaching staff and controlled the education of Africa’s future leaders,
Tanzania would never truly be liberated from Western imperialism. University officials
responded by mandating that all political activity in which the youth were involved go through
the existing institution of the Tanzania Youth League (TYL), an affiliate of the ruling party
which was later renamed CCM Youth League (2007). The group, which engaged in study and
activism and held regular meetings on Sundays, featured many students who would go on to
become influential politicians. USARF was composed of students from the eastern and central
African countries, who articulated their views through a magazine, Cheche. As if to signal the
strained relations between students and the political establishment that would evolve in the
subsequent decades, the government of Tanzania, led by Nyerere, banned both USARF and
the magazine in 1970, due to what was seen as the organisation’s and magazine’s left leanings
(Priya & Mhajida 2012).
The 1970s: Era of institutional nationalisation and student radicalisation
The character of student representation and engagement with university governance started to
change dramatically from the 1970s. Arguably, there was a departure from the collaboration
that had been witnessed between student organisations and political leadership in the struggle
for independence in Africa, to increased antagonism from the 1970s, when universities were
student politics in africa: representation and activism
established as national institutions. Henceforth, and as Balsvik (1998) documents, relations
between the student leadership and university management deteriorated and led to constant
closure of institutions. This radicalisation of the student movement and severance of relations
with the political leadership mostly emanated from the push from the students to constitute
themselves as the vanguard of the dreams of political independence for the new states. Hence
the quest for political spaces by students within the institutions was not welcome by university
management who saw themselves as representatives of the new political class. When most
African countries attained political independence, a decision was made by the new African
leaders to use the universities as developmental institutions in pursuit of economic and political
progress. Of immediate focus was the use of the universities to catalyse the process of workforce
production to aid in the Africanisation of the civil service. Hence from 1970, an increasing
number of middle-level institutions were established as national institutions through Acts
of parliament. This was the case for example, with the University of East Africa that was
de-established to found national universities in Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and Makerere. This
institutional nationalisation also involved a severance of the ‘special relationship’ with the
University of London, together with the governance cultures this entailed, including spaces for
student representation. This focus on ‘development’ in most instances altered the relationship
between university students and the political elite from what it had previously been.
A common feature of the new institutions throughout Africa was their close relationship
with the political establishment, with the countries’ presidents being installed as chancellors of
the universities, and therefore having a direct role in determining the level of autonomy that
the institutions enjoyed. In universities such as Dar es Salaam, the youth league of the ruling
party TANU became part of the governance structure of the institution and had a more
prominent role than independent student organisations (Ngonyani 2000; Omari & Mihiyo
1991). A review of the Acts of parliament that established the institutions does not reveal
any provisions made expressly for student representation. Henceforth, and although the Acts
of the new universities allowed for student representation, the close association between the
new university management with the political elite constrained students’ organisational spaces
in what would be interpreted as elite competition to control the spoils of independence, with
students seen as a new elite in the making, taking perspectives different from those of the
ruling elite.
The University of Dar es Salaam Act 1970, for example, defined a student organisation to
mean ‘an organisation approved by the Chancellor as being an organisation representative of
the students of the University’ (University of Dar es Salaam Act 1970: 5). The Act allowed the
student organisation to elect five members to represent them in the niversity council and
faculty boards and three student representatives to senate. However, given that the chancellor
of the university, who was also the country’s president, had to approve how the student
organisation was constituted, political considerations in such processes prevailed to the detriment
of true student representation and engagement. The same efforts at political containment
of student activities have been chronicled with respect to Makerere University in the 1970s,
4. the evolving nature of student participation in university governance in africa
during the Obote and Amin presidencies (Mills 2006). With such political meddling and
limitations, the nascent period of the national universities witnessed constant pressures from
students making a case for genuine student representation in the governance of the universities.
Three examples of what happened to student representation and organising in Ghana
(University of Ghana), Tanzania (University of Dar es Salaam) and Kenya (University of
Nairobi) in the period 1970 to 1980 illustrate this position.
Ghana was the first country in Africa to achieve independence and had the University of
Ghana established as a national institution in 1961. Boahen asserts that unlike other parts of
the British Commonwealth that witnessed a lot of student activism just before and after
independence, in Ghana only one movement was formed in the 1960s, the National Association
of Socialist Students’ Organisations (NASSO). This organisation was the student branch of
the ruling Convention People’s Party (CPP), in opposition to the National Union of Ghana
Students (NUGS). The first confrontation between the students of the university and the
government came shortly after independence when NUGS passed resolutions condemning
the dismissal of the chief justice and protesting against the deportation of six members of
the academic staff of the University of Ghana (Amoa 1979; Boahen 1994). The government
of Kwame Nkrumah responded by closing the three universities in Ghana for seventeen days
and by forming a rival student association, the Ghana National Students’ Organisation
(GNSO) to replace NUGS. The swift and harsh reaction from government over student
activities led to apathy among students regarding questioning the quality of their representation
in university governance. This apathy continued until 1971, when there was a further direct
clash between the students and the government caused by NUGS’ demand that members of
parliament should declare their assets as provided for in the constitution (Boahen 1994), a
scenario similar to what happened in Dar es Salaam, when students questioned the higher
salaries awarded to ministers, as we shall shortly discuss. Amoa (1979) finds that at no time did
the students come out openly to challenge the whole political system due to the failure on the
part of Ghanaian students to become actively involved in national politics as a consequence
of their low degree of politicisation occasioned by government repression. From 1971 onwards,
however, Ghanaian students became increasingly politicised and certainly played a greater
role in the overthrow of Busias civilian government in 1971 and Acheampong’s military
government in 1978 (Amoa 1979).
In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and although the Act that established the university provided
for student representation, genuine representation had to be negotiated over a long period of
time. Following presentations made by students to the presidential commission that had been
tasked to explore the possibilities of setting up the university, student participation in the
university council, senate and academic boards was incorporated in the 1970 Act (UNESCO
1972). Before then, there was an unwritten ‘gentlemans agreement’ in the university college
that had allowed limited student participation in departmental meetings and faculty boards
(UNESCO 1972). However, both UNESCO (1972) and Douglas (2007) aver that student
participation in the University of Dar es Salaam as contained in the 1970 Act was not
student politics in africa: representation and activism
comprehensive. Students were, for example, not allowed to participate in such bodies as
the appointments committee, disciplinary committee, and appeals committee or in processes
entailing curricular design and examinations. In terms of actual structure, the 1970 Act created
the following offices for students:
The student council called ‘Baraza’ which was composed of all students of the university
and was the supreme student policy-making body.
The representative council, which was the student parliament elected directly by
students with the halls of residence acting as electoral constituencies. The representative
council, once elected, would then elect five members to the university council, senate
and other university committees.
Hall committees elected by their respective hall residents automatically became members
of the student representative council. Hall committees were responsible for the welfare
issues of students such as room allocation and the organisation of sports and entertainment.
The president of the Dar es Salaam University Students’ Organization (DUSO) was
directly elected by all students. Any member of the student community could contest
and winning was by simple majority.
The DUSO cabinet comprised the DUSO president, the vice-president and the ministers,
who were picked by the president from among the elected members of the students
representative council.
Finally, the cabinet operated through committees appointed by ministers from among
the student body to advise them on matters related to their ministry.
Despite this detailed structure which was meant to facilitate student representation, it would
seem that during most of the 1970s, the university administration which was appointed
based on their allegiance to the political structure tried to manipulate and limit students’ space
for organising. Douglas (2007) finds that although Dar es Salaam University had impressive
policies in place to facilitate student representation and give students the opportunity to learn
about social issues that were directly related to their lives and interests, the students noticed
increasingly oppressive administrative policies. The first manifestation of this was that the first
university administrators appointed after the institution was established as a national university
were party functionaries. A manifestation of the students’ frustration was that the new
administration seemed to favour the Tanzania Youth League (TYL), and this caused continued
friction on who from DUSO and TYL would serve as the voice of the student body. Many
students took issue with this, with most students asserting that TYL could not be considered
the voice of the students at all (Douglas 2007; UNESCO 1972). This tension culminated in
what is known as the Akivaga crisis. The Akivaga crisis refers to the closure of the University
of Dar es Salaam that followed a letter written by students to the university administration
expressing reservations over certain proclamations by the vice-chancellor without the input of
students. The chairperson of DUSO, Symonds Akivaga, a Kenyan student, and the DUSO
4. the evolving nature of student participation in university governance in africa
cabinet were summoned by the university disciplinary committee, which expelled Akivaga and
repatriated him to Kenya. DUSO reacted to this action with the resignation of the student
cabinet and all student representatives on the council, senate and faculty boards, leading to a
stalemate as students ceased to be represented in any of the university committees. This
eventually led to the closure of the university and the expulsion of more student leaders,
leaving the party affiliated to TYL in charge of student representation.
The Akivaga crisis triggered a long period of conflict between students and management
at the university. Matters came to a head on 5 March 1978 when students from the University
of Dar es Salaam, Ardhi Institute, that is the college for land and survey studies, and the Water
Resources Institute, tried to march to the offices of the government newspaper, Daily News, to
protest an increase in the salaries of ministers and members of parliament that they saw as a
departure from the socialist ideals (Douglas 2007; Nyonyani 2000). The government reacted
to this protest by banning DUSO, and placing student affairs under the CCM Youth League
in an attempt to control students through the centralisation of power in the party (Peter &
Sengondo 1985). Subsequently, and in attempt to deconstruct what the government saw as
DUSO’s subversive politics, the president of the republic as the chancellor of the university,
entrusted the youth league of the ruling party to run student affairs and subsequently facilitated
through university management the formation of a splinter organisation, Muungano wa
Wanafunzi Tanzania (MUWATA), meaning Tanzania Students’ Union, by the youth wing to
oversee all student governments in colleges and universities (Ngonyani 2000). Nominations
for leadership positions were conducted by the youth wing which vetted all candidates aspiring
to positions in the student body, throwing out those who did not show strong allegiance to the
party (Ngonyani 2000). Thus, student representation was placed in the hands of an organisation
incapable of solving problems the student community was facing, especially problems related
to resources and representation. The ban on DUSO remained until 1990, when MUWATA
was abandoned and a new organisation, the Dar es Salaam University Students’ Organization
(DARUSO) was formed.
In Kenya, student representation followed similar paths of confrontation with the political
establishment and university management after the founding of the University of Nairobi
in 1970. The initial confrontation stemmed from students’ opposition to Sessional Paper
No. 10 of 1965, for which they expressed contempt, as it supported the capitalist system as a
strategy for development (Balsvik 1998). Instead, the students preferred and showed enthusiasm
for the Tanzanian brand of socialism and the strategy of self-reliance espoused by Nyerere. This
opposition was led by the then student organisation, Nairobi University Student Organisation
(NUSO). In 1972, the student newspaper University Platform was banned and its editors
arrested for criticising the ruling party KANU (Kiai 1992). During most of the 1970s, student
opposition featured as an emerging culture of political repression that was extended to
university academic staff by limiting the exercise of academic freedom (Kiai 1992). The
relationship between the students and the political establishment deteriorated when a new
president, Daniel Arap Moi came to power in 1978. The new administration started on a
student politics in africa: representation and activism
wrong footing. While the student leadership expected a change in attitude from the political
system, the new president demonstrated in word and deed that he expected uncritical support
and loyalty from the university. In October 1979, Nairobi University students demonstrated
against Moi’s one-year-old government which they accused of having barred opposition
politicians from taking part in that year’s general election and demanded the reinstatement of
Ngugi wa Thiong’o as their professor of literature (Kiai 1992). Six university student leaders
were expelled and the student representative body, the Nairobi University Student Organisation,
was proscribed as the university was closed for a purported ‘early Christmas vacation’. The
banning of NUSO, as had happened in Dar es Salaam and the University of Ghana, gave rise
to the Students Interim Committee, which stepped up the challenge to the Moi dictatorship.
Henceforth, public speeches at the university had to be cleared by the Special Branch (i.e. the
Kenyan intelligence police) who also attended any lectures held. The banning of NUSO stayed
in force until 1982 when a new organisation, the Student Organisation of Nairobi University
(SONU) was formed as the central body representing students, with Tito Adungosi as its first
chairperson. His reign as the chair of SONU was, however, short-lived. Titus Adungosi, a third-
year student in the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Development at the University of
Nairobi was arrested and sentenced to ten years of imprisonment for sedition on 24 September
1982, after the failed Kenyan military coup of 1 August 1982 against Moi’s regime. He died in
prison under mysterious circumstances on 27 December 1988.
The narratives on the fate of student leadership and representation in Ghana, Kenya and
Tanzania, could be told of many African universities during the 1960s and 1970s. While,
during the 1960s, the nascent universities witnessed student organisations crystallising around
greater pan-African issues, shaping the direction of academic and public services, championing
decolonisation courses and student welfare issues, the period of 1970 to 1980 saw the growth
of radical student movements to resist internal descent into the authoritarianism of the new
states. Two forces shaped the nature of student organisation and representation. The first was
a move by the political establishment to decolonise, at least in terms of structure, the universities
in Africa, by de-establishing the ‘Asquith’ college system in preference for national universities.
The subsequent attempts by the political establishment to manipulate the new universities for
political ends and curtail the academic freedom that had blossomed under the University of
London tutelage seem to have caused the conflicts between university student leadership and
the political establishment in the 1970s. For example, Ajayi et al. (1996) aver that in the 1970s
and 1980s four-fifths of the African states had a one-man, a one-party or a military government,
with the presidents doubling up as chancellors of the new universities. The academic autonomy
which was such an important part of the imported university model was exceedingly vulnerable
under these arrangements. One way that the political leadership therefore tried to contain
criticism from university students and academics was by limiting organisational space through
limiting elected student and academic leadership. Usually, the administration and academic
leadership of universities were appointed by the government and imposed on the university
community (Ajayi et al. 1996; Cheater 1991). The manifestations of this move in universities
4. the evolving nature of student participation in university governance in africa
was in the form of government attempts to influence and control student organisations by
either manipulating their leadership, banning them outright, infiltrating them, or replacing
them with party youth wingers (Omari & Mihiyo 1991).
The 1980s and 1990s: The era of conflict and structural decay
From the 1980s, student leadership and representation in African universities entered a new
phase. The radicalisation in student activities that had been witnessed in the 1970s started to
ebb, although this did not in any way lead to reduced conflicts with university management.
Rather, manipulations from the university management and the political system to control
the direction of student activities intensified. Besides, the 1980s saw new developments that
sucked student leadership into new zones of conflict both with the wider political establishment
and university management. The confrontations between student organisations and state
security agents due to the resistance of students to economic reforms that affected their welfare
have been variously documented. University closures were more frequent as governments
bowed to the dictates of international financial institutions by liberalising their economies
and introducing anti-welfare policies as part of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs).
Accompanying the implementation of SAPs was the emergence of a new narrative that cast the
public university as inefficient and that needed to be changed with the promotion of private
universities, and the emergence of a private university sector as one that focused on more
academic work, compared to the destructive student activism of public universities. Student
leadership in many African universities got involved in mass coalitions with civil society and
participated in governance as an oppositional force, to protest the dire economic conditions
and to press for political liberalisation (Byaruhanga 2006). African students were among the
forces that brought about Africa’s second liberation in the 1990s (Mazrui 1995).
Most universities that were intellectually vibrant in the 1960s and 1970s became
characterised by the collapse of infrastructure, such as libraries, bookstores and research
facilities, serious shortages of books, laboratory equipment and research funds, inadequate
teaching personnel and poor staff development and motivation. This had an adverse effect on
student organising as governments sought to implement reforms that affected students’ welfare,
while at the same time ensuring that their political legitimacy was not eroded. In what has been
described variously as ‘student survival politics’ (Byaruhanga 2006) or ‘student acquiescence’
(Mawuko-Yevugah 2013), governments used stick-and-carrot policies to weaken student
organisations and minimise their representation in key university organisations in a manner
that turned student organisations in most universities into either disenfranchised pressure
groups or an integral component of university management. While in the 1960s and 1970s,
students portrayed their organisations as the vanguard of the revolution and the common
good, in the 1980s, what emerged was a strong focus on narrow welfare issues.
Ghana and Kenya provide examples where there was more use of the carrot than the stick
student politics in africa: representation and activism
approach. In Ghana, some students, lecturers and workers supported the regime, which
amended the composition of university councils to allow student and worker participation.
For one year, universities were closed to allow students to help move cocoa from the countryside
to the ports (Sawyer 1994). Tensions between the regime and the universities caused the
committee of vice-chancellors to begin to play an increasingly important role in government–
university relations, as the heads of public universities developed common positions when
negotiating with the government (Sawyer 1994). In Kenya, the then ruling party KANU tried
to establish party branches throughout the universities, balkanised national student organisations
by creating and strengthening district-based student associations, and addressed the welfare issues
of students by increasing their loan allowances while at the same time, gradually privatising
university education (Chege 2009; Oanda 2013). Those student leaders who refused to abide
by this state-crafted student leadership architecture were expelled from the institutions,
arrested, tortured and forced into exile. The persecution of students and particularly student
leaders was the order of the day.
In Uganda, besides demands for improved welfare conditions, the student guild leaders
were at the forefront in opposing student constitutions that were drafted by the ministry of
education to regulate student activities without any input from the student leadership
(Byaruhanga 2006). The same situation prevailed in Tanzania where the ban that had been
placed on DUSO in 1978 continued for most of the 1980s. Student representation continued to
be under TANU Youth League (TYL) which also became the caretaker of the student government
(Mwollo-Ntallima 2011). By 1979, another government-created student organisation, MUWATA,
replaced TYL, and was in charge of student leadership in the university, colleges, and secondary
and primary schools until 1991 when DARUSO was launched (Mkumbo 2002).
As Ajayi et al. (1996) document, the 1980s saw in almost all African countries the dislike
for any manifestation of academic freedom by the political class. This resulted in a growing
sense of militancy from students, which forced many governments to react violently. The
1980s also witnessed the implementation of SAPs in Africa, which in part reduced funding
to higher education institutions, thus seriously affecting the welfare, material and learning
conditions of students. Implementation of these policies forced student leadership in most
African universities to organise resistance against the dismantling of public education and in
defence of academic freedom and the right to study (Federici et al. 2000). Federici et al. (2000)
aver that the struggles of African students in the 1980s and early 1990s were particularly
intense because students realised that the drastic university budget cuts, which the World Bank’s
SAPs demanded, signalled the end of the ‘social contract’ that had shaped their relation to the
state in the post-independence period, which had made education the key to social advancement
and participatory citizenship. They argue that students’ struggles also led to the development
of new pan-African student movements (Federici et al. 2000).
Because the political leadership and university management were united in enforcing SAPs,
force, manipulation and outright suppression were used to limit student representation and
undermine their leadership. In Kenya for example, towards the end of the 1980s, centralised
4. the evolving nature of student participation in university governance in africa
student leadership organised in SONU was once again undermined in preference for faculty
and district-based student representation (Klopp & Orina 2002). A presidential decree issued
in 1981 and which required that student organisations wishing to hold meetings on campus
apply for permits from the office of the president, was enforced by university management
throughout the 1980s, such that apart from representation on faculty boards, there was no
independent and democratically elected student body to articulate student interests (Africa
Watch 1990). The University of Nairobi had also adopted a policy of divide and rule. By 1987,
the Student Organisation of Nairobi University was again banned and students remained
without any representation until 1992 (Kiai 1992). With the vacuum in student representation
and leadership, the government and university management promoted ethnic-based welfare
associations in place of a central students’ body. The district organisations ostensibly representing
students from various districts were characterised by a patronage system stemming from local
politicians closely associated with the president, who was still the chancellor of all public
universities (Kiai 1992). The student leaders of the district-based associations had direct access
to the president and other politicians, and frequently led well-publicised trips to pay homage
to the president, who in return rewarded them financially in exchange for declarations of
loyalty to the president and the government.
While, in effect, the government took direct control of the university and student autonomy
to organise was completely eroded (Savage 1990), the structure of the university was
reconstituted into six constituent colleges, i.e. Arts, Business, Health, Agriculture, Science,
and Education. This compartmentalisation and regimentation further weakened student
representation and made it easy to diffuse opposition. The monitoring and administration of
student activities at faculty level made top-down tracking of ‘trouble makers’ possible. A report
by a team that had visited universities in Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Ghana and Nigeria
towards the end of the 1980s observed that during the time of study for the report all these
universities were either closed or had recently been closed due to student unrest (Coombe 1991).
The University of Nairobi probably had the highest incident of crises, about 25 by 1990
(Omari & Mihyo 1992).
Reflecting on the conditions of student representation in African universities during
the 1980s and 1990s, Byaruhanga (2006) notes that one consequence of this had been the
de-ideologisation of student activism. The period had been characterised by diminishing state
funding for education in the face of rapidly growing enrolment rates, a massive brain drain and
overstretching of facilities. This in turn made the university leadership increasingly participate
in manipulating student elections and leadership to the extent that most student representatives
now appear as an extension of management and not the representative of students.
Increasingly, the gap between student leaders and the general student body in terms of
opulence appears to be wide; students leaders are increasingly offered jobs either in the
universities or other state apparatuses after graduation; and in the face of increasing youth
unemployment, this has become the bait that has undermined student representation and its
ideological leaning.
student politics in africa: representation and activism
The nature of student representation post-1990: The era of fragmentation
While up to the 1990s, student representation and quality of participation were influenced
by the wider political climate outside the universities, the post-1990 period has witnessed
developments that have altered this relationship. First, in almost all African universities, the
economic crisis of the state and underfunding that was occasioned by the adoption of SAPs
led, towards the end of the 1990s, to the introduction of ‘a commercial stream’ of self-funded,
‘private’ students. This has meant that in some of the universities, student representation has
come to be structured along the lines of the different modes of admission and study –
government-funded vs. private students – which has seen student organisation subverted in
place of narrow and short-term interests. For example, in Kenya, module two students in
full-time and part-time programmes have their own small organisations even within the large
student organisation as they perceive their interests to be different from those of the full-time
students on government sponsorship. Within the large national student body, the Kenya
University Students’ Association (KUSA), parallels are often drawn in the media between the
activism of student representatives from public universities and the non-confrontational
approach of those student representatives from private universities. The net effect has been
to balkanise students’ organisational spaces and therefore undermine the effectiveness of the
structures of representation. The constitution of SONU in Kenya, for example, clarifies the
distinction between the two groups of students and their different membership fees. Article 5
on membership groups ordinary members into two groups: the first are government-sponsored
students duly admitted by the senate (otherwise known as ‘module one’) who are required
to pay an annual subscription fee of five per cent (5%) of tuition fees or five hundred
Kenya shillings (Ksh. 500, USD 6). The second group are the self-sponsored students duly
admitted by senate (otherwise known as ‘module two’) who are required to pay an annual
subscription fee of five per cent (5%) of tuition fees or one thousand Kenya shillings
(Ksh. 1 000, USD 12). Since tuition fees for the module two students are higher compared
to those paid by government-sponsored students, this second group of students ends up
paying more as membership fees, yet these differential payments have no implication on
the quality of welfare services that either group of students enjoys.
The private student scheme, initially intended to be an opportunity to extend access to
students who are able to finance their own university education, was not subjected to any
regulatory structures. The management of the admissions system became out of hand as
student numbers soon outstripped the available teaching and research facilities and manpower.
Admissions were driven by the quest for more and more funds. Central administration and
council lost their grip over the money-generating units, which claimed full ownership and
authority over resources generated at unit level. Whereas in Kenya, as Sifuna (1998) discloses,
the 1990s university planning debacles can be attributed to directives from above, at Makerere
University in Uganda they were bred at the decentralised units. The parallel admissions have
occasioned students with very different needs, who therefore seek to organise along the lines
4. the evolving nature of student participation in university governance in africa
of their mode of admission in a manner that subverts useful engagement with the institution
for academic or welfare matters. In a majority of these institutions, it is apparent that the era
of increased and deepening neo-liberal policies has resulted in the collapse of the student
common voice and the deterioration of academic standards and the relationship between the
students and society. In Ghana, reforms undertaken between 1990 and 1998 regarding funding
higher education to achieve equity and quality never produced the expected outcomes. As
Girdwood (1999) argues, part of the reforms in higher education in Ghana targeted reforming
the student loan scheme to achieve equity and quality of higher education. This included
designing the loan scheme to introduce the principle of cost-sharing, without any costs
to students. However, rapid change in the external economic and policy environments which
had underpinned the scheme’s financial viability (including in particular the numbers of
eligible students), and subsequent failure to reassess its sustainability, resulted in a substantial
indirect subsidy to tertiary education. The subsidy represented a significant additional
contribution to sectoral expenditure which did not contribute in any way to improving the
quality of the education available to students. Quality had obviously been compromised by
a lack of resources. Girdwood shows that overall, student numbers increased more rapidly than
had originally been planned, but participation never broadened, and female enrolment at
times decreased.
A student from one of the universities in Kenya, lamenting about the disintegration of
student unity and the implications on academic standards noted:
We were not able to raise issues with the administration because we lack unity. There
are issues to be addressed but many people are just not bothered and prefer to go
about their businesses. In the event that they are raised by students, it takes time to
be addressed. (student interview, 13 May 2014)
Besides the dichotomisation of the student body into government-sponsored and self-sponsored
students (as discussed above), new legal frameworks have been designed in most of the universities
to move the institutions away from the narrowly conceived Acts of parliament by which they
were established in the 1970s. Thus, in East Africa, Tanzania started this reform process with
the formation of the institutional transformation programme in 1994, which culminated
in the enactment of the new Universities Act in 2005, which also established the Tanzania
Commission for Universities (TCU). In Uganda, the University and Other Tertiary Institutions
Act of 2001 established the Uganda National Council for Higher Education (UNCHE), and
in Kenya the Universities Act of 2012 created the Commission for Universities Education
(CUE). The new national councils and commissions were supposed to expand the autonomy
of higher education institutions by, for example, removing political influence and meddling in
the governance of the institutions. Broad provisions have also been made for the strengthening
of student governance through student representation in institutional councils, senates and
faculty boards. Generally the Acts provide for at least two members elected by the institutional
student politics in africa: representation and activism