Higher education and democracy in Africa

The three research projects in the higher education and democracy stream of HERANA Phase 1 investigated

  1. the role of education in forming citizens' attitudes to democracy in Africa;
  2. the ability of higher education in Africa to supply the human capital needed for running national parliaments/legislatures in selected countries; and
  3. the role of elite universities in selected African countries in developing democratic attitudes and behaviour among students and student leaders.


Individually, the three HERANA studies reached ambiguous, seemingly contradictory results:

  1. Higher education’s contribution to democracy in Africa is found to be minimal in terms of inculcating democratic attitudes among students and graduates (Mattes and Mughogho 2010; Luescher-Mamashela et al 2011); 
  2. critical with regard to training political elites who understand the operation of complex political institutions such as legislatures (Mattes and Mozaffar 2011); and 
  3. promising in terms of the universities’ potential to act as ‘sites of citizenship’ and training grounds for a new democratically-minded leadership in politics and civil society (Luescher-Mamashela et al 2011). 

Taking another look at the three studies it can be seen, however, that formal education in general, and higher education in particular, provides advantages in various measures of democratic citizenship and leadership. 

Highly educated citizens in Africa are significantly more critical of the performance of their economy, government and larger democratic regime, and they are better informed and obtain their information about politics from a greater variety of news media than less educated citizens. Some of these advantages, along with others, are already evident at university level. Thus, students at three African elite universities where HERANA conducted surveys show significantly higher levels of political participation, political knowledge and news media use, and extensive organisational involvement on and off campus, along with more critical attitudes towards politics in their country. Therefore, it may not be surprising to find that university educated parliamentarians in African legislatures tend to be the prime constituency for legislative reform and legislative strengthening.

Project outputs:

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?


HERANA countries and universities