Higher education and democracy

There are three research projects under this umbrella:

  • Higher education and democratic citizenship in Africa
  • Higher education and national legislatures in Africa
  • Student governance in three African universities

Higher education and democratic citizenship

This project, led by Prof. Robert Mattes at the Democracy in Africa Research Unit (DARU) at the University of Cape Town, aims to explore the role of education in African attitudes to democracy via the analysis of selected Afrobarometer data. In particular, the project will focus on the linkages between education and (1) public demand for democracy (the extent to which people prefer democracy and reject non-democratic alternatives), (2) the perceived supply of democracy (the extent to which people think their country is democratic and are satisfied with the current state of democracy), (3) participation (the extent to which people vote, contact officials, or meet with other citizens about public issues), (4) their evaluations of government (the extent to which people are cynical, sceptical or place blind trust in their leaders and institutions), and (5) the basic political values (the extent to which they see themselves as agents, demand equality and rights, and are willing to call their leaders to account).

The key questions of the study include the following:

  1. Does formal education have an independent impact on these attitudes, taking into account the other usual demographic indicators (e.g. age, gender, socio-economic status, health status and class)?
  2. If it does, to what extent can we identify a distinct impact of higher education? 
  3. To what extent are any identifiable impacts due to the kinds of cognitive skills imparted by higher education, versus the content of the curriculum? 
  4. To what extent do these impacts differ by national higher education systems?
  5. Do the impacts of formal education and higher education differ by various types of public attitudes, and if so why?

Higher education and national legislatures in Africa

This project, also led by Prof. Mattes at DARU, is exploring the ability of national university systems to supply the human capital to run the national legislatures in selected African countries. Data collection includes desktop research of publicly available data (Constitutions, Standing Orders, relevant legislation, country-level databases), observational research of legislative proceedings and behaviour, and interviews of random samples of legislators.

The key research questions include the following:

  1. To what extent are political parties able to bring university graduates into the legislature as MPs?
  2. To what extent is the legislature able to recruit highly trained specialists to work as administrative and research staff? 
  3. How can national university systems better support national parliaments? 
  4. What are MPs views of the importance of higher education? 
  5. What have national legislatures actually done with respect to higher education in terms of law-making, oversight, and representation?

Student governance in three African universities

This project is exploring the role of universities in the formation of political attitudes and democratic citizenship and, more specifically, the relationship between student political involvement in university governance and student attitudes towards democracy, in three African universities (Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and Cape Town). For this purpose, a political opinion survey has been designed which draws on, and is compatible with, the Afrobarometer survey instrument. The survey explores the various dimensions of students’ experiences, perceptions and conceptions of democracy including their attitudes towards/views of democracy in terms of perceptions of demand/supply of democracy; conceptions of democracy; democratic values; stated support for democracy; stated participation in political processes; and, ‘critical thinking’. The survey and samples allow for a comparison between the views of the general student population and those of student leadership at each institution, on the one hand, and the general view of the broader public in each respective country (which is available from the Afrobarometer data).

The project is co-ordinated by Dr Thierry Luescher (University of the Western Cape). Other team members include Angolwisye Mwollo-Ntallima (HEMA Masters student from Tanzania), Prof. Njuguna Ng’ethe and Mr Samuel Kiiru (University of Nairobi), and Dr David Court (Consultant in Nairobi). Prof. Robert Mattes is assisting with the design of the survey and the analysis of the data.


The limited impacts of formal education on democratic citizenship in Africa
by Robert Mattes and Dangalira Mughogho


While the maladies of democratic citizenship have usually been attributed to deeply-rooted cultural values endemic to African societies, previous research has found at least some evidence that Africans are more likely to act as agents, rather than subjects, once they develop higher levels of ‘cognitive awareness’ about politics. This paper extends these studies in three important ways. First, it attempts to unpack the various elements of cognitive awareness and isolate and trace the direct and indirect effects of formal education. Second, it examines the effects of formal education across a much broader range of dimensions of democratic citizenship. Finally, it attempts to isolate and assess the specific impact of higher education within this process.

The University in Africa and Democratic Citizenship:
Hothouse or Training Ground?
By Thierry M Luescher-Mamashela with Sam Kiiru, Robert Mattes, Angolwisye Mwollo-ntallima, Njuguna Ng’ethe and Michelle Romo


Report on Student Surveys conducted at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Education, Legislators and Legislatures in Africa
By Robert Mattes & Shaheen Mozaffar


Popularly elected legislatures are the sine qua non of modern, representative democracy. Yet the influence of legislatures has receded during the 20th century. Legislatures have been especially weak in Africa. Yet some African legislatures are beginning to assert their independence as players in the policy process by formulating independent policy preferences, monitoring the executive, and responding to popular demands. But why are some legislatures developing these capacities while many others are not?