On April 24, 2023, The Chanzo, published a piece titled ‘University of Dar es Salaam is Stuck. It’s Time to Save It’, which the media abstracted it as ‘UDSM is stuck between its past glory and its inability to grow and adopt positively.’
When published, it went viral on social media. Personally, I received more than fifty WhatsApp messages from friends who forwarded me the piece. Reading it, and considering how much it circulated, it is fair to say that the piece reinvigorated discussions on how the institution of higher learning has become disconnected and distant from society.
It also highlighted the concerning trend of diminishing the quality of academics, often referred to as dons, as scholars of profound depth, astute researchers, and, above all, committed intellectuals. Caught-up by such concern from the author, I thought sharing my views in that endeavour to make our universities and all other institutions of higher learning, institution worth the name.
The author used the case of the University of Dar es Salaam. In my sharing, my views are generally focusing on universities and institutes of higher learning in Tanzania and Africa at large, though at time issues unique to UDSM will be pointed out.
Neo-liberal blow on universities
I can qualify this to be a fair and provocative piece, reminding the University to return to its proper track of knowledge production and critical engagement so as reinstate itself as the hill of knowledge albeit not as an ‘ivory tower’ as most would wish to call.
It points out to the major issues of concerns that signals pitfalls that the institution has embraced which are probably. Nonetheless reading the piece with historical lens, it have not pointed to one of the important landmarks that have brought the institution where it is. The piece point to the downfall and shoulders the downfall to the institution point to the historical success in exclusion of historical causes of the downfall and that is where I think is needed to be brought on board.
The university have not just lost its critical engagement on its own as many might think. There are both institutional and external causes. The piece have done a fair critique to the internal weaknesses however it has not done well in terms of articulating the second side of the coin.
To the best of my knowledge, the decline of glory of the University in point is nothing unique to what Mahmood Mamdani discussed in 2007 in his famous critique of the neoliberal policies in universities, Scholars in the Marketplace: The Dilemmas of Neo-liberal Reform at Makerere University 1989-2005. In this book he pointed to one of the many external factors for collapsing of academic cultures in most of the African university.
Its twin observation is Chachage Seithy L. Chachage, Ghettoisation of Basic Research in Higher Education, a set of two articles published by Kavazi la Mwalimu Nyerere aka Nyerere Resource Centre. These two publications critically engaged and challenges the many World Bank’s neo-liberal policies on higher education in Africa, which are among principle external factors for the collapsing vigour among scholars in terms of scholarship depth, astuteness in researches, and intellectual commitment.
Oh! Yes, it is true that culture of scholarship has declined, and it is true that when neo-liberalism began breathing its last scholars at the hill were expected to resuscitate the culture of depth scholarship, astuteness in research and reinstate their intellectual commitment. Nevertheless, the post neo-liberal social-political Tanzanian context was not the same prior to neo-liberal reforms.
Moreover, as Hazel Gray observed in 2018, probably, Tanzania was among the most liberalized countries in terms of its key policies although government remained dominant. Recovering from the ills of neo-liberalization, has not been an easy undertaking.
Quality of the students
These are among issues external to the university that often goes unnoticed. Universities in Tanzania and the rest have not recovered from this. Nevertheless, as university were struggling to recover from the neo-liberal blow, an immediate bumpy became internal challenges. With pluralism in ideas and end of Ujamaa policies, slowly critical engagements were increasingly washed away, and scholars slowly were to detach themselves from politics.
In short, they were almost expected to be apolitical, and becoming political was equated to crossing the red-light. Here we need to remind ourselves the fervent academic atmosphere at the university flourished within the framework of one party and collective political ideology or philosophy.
With the abandonment of socialism and self-reliance as a philosophy and political ideology, which informed both social and academic engagement, what was a new societal meeting point? Which platform that could bring both academicians and the public together? This detachment of the academics from the general public partly has ended in making the so-called scholars detachment from the society, which is synonymous to the end of public intellectualism.
Quality of universities and their dons depends not only on the dons at the universities, but quality of students too. Decline in quality of students that join the universities also contribute to declining of universities. This has an indirect relation with the way the community perceives education too. Interest in academic engagement has not declined among the scholars only; it is not there among students too.
While there has been little avenue of public discussion at the university, still in those few available most students like many scholars do not attend them. The culture of payment to attend the intellectual presentation that grew during the neoliberal era is yet to go. But to make it short, while there are many internal challenges that explain why there is declining of academic culture of depth scholarship, and committed intellectualism some of which this piece have pointed out.
Reviving the Hill of knowledge
We have to be mindful of the following. First, the consequences of neo-liberal reforms that relegated universities to nothing and hence stripped of access to needed financing for research an innovation. Second, lack of clear national philosophy that could bind both the intellectual community and the public in terms of addressing key societal challenges.
Third, higher education, which increased both number of higher education institutions and students that was not par with increased employment. Transfer of staff to newly established institutions and increase in number of students had a consequence in terms of increased number of teaching hours which had had a significant consequences on time allocated to research.
These coupled with long time problem of academic staffing and because it takes time to for one to qualify as university teachers, it is true that those few were to give up significant research time to have more hours of teaching. Fourth limited research funds that could finance basic research have pushed for the university dons to depend on external financing.
While these external research fund are much welcome, most of them come with already defined research problem and agenda most of which do not represent the interest and need of the country. As such, while many dons may be actively engaging in research, there are possibilities that their research work in facilitating interest of the funders and to lesser extent their own institutions.
Fifth the call for academia to be apolitical have detached them from active and continued engagement with the public, in most cases in fear of crossing the red-light they have abstained from most of all political related problem. Nevertheless, as we know that polices is core to people’s lives, they in many cases produce knowledge that do not impact directly people’s problems. The bigger and unanswered question that the piece do not address adequately is how to move forward.
In my view, in addition to what the piece have argued to be done, I am proposing three things. First, there is a need to put more emphasis on lower levels education (primary and secondary). This is because, universities need students, and since they are instrument to the lives of universities, their quality will have far implication on the academic culture in the universities.
Second, to improve research culture, there is a need to begin paying attention to basic research to. Most countries make significant impact by financing basic research, which become the springs of knowledge production beyond addressing immediate problems.
Equally, this will reinstate the university as a site of knowledge. In this, I urge the government that it is right time to implement the decision to have a more reliable budget for research. According to one study, Tanzania still spend less than one percent of its GDP on research and development.
For instance, in 2022, the gross domestic expenditure on research and development (GERD) as a share of Tanzania’s GDP amounted to 0.52 percent. This is less to the lowest level of research and development GDP ratio agreed by the members of African Union (AU), which have pegged it not to less than one percent of the country’s GDP budget ration.
Third and last, is re-empowering university decision making organs. This is critical and important measure since among the challenges faced by the university is that unlike those days of 1960s and 1970s, today much of the powers have been centralized and hence affecting the unique nature of universities operation.
In short, one can argue that in Tanzania to some extent the concept university do not apply to universities because of the much interferences in the name of government regulation. These three plus the many issues pointed in the piece can move us from where we are back to where we used to be and push us further to where we destined to be.
Conrad John Masabo teaches at the Department of History, Political Science and Development Studies, Dar es Salaam University College of Education (DUCE). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Chanzo or institutions affiliated with the author. If you are interested in publishing in this space, please contact our editors at email@example.com.