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Prof. Thandika Mkandawire’s legacy: Lessons for higher education and its internationalisation

Professor Thandika Mkandawire was someone at home in the world: his childhood years were spent in Malawi, Zimbabwe and Zambia; his life’s work spanned Africa, Latin America, Europe and Asia; he was pan-Africanist in his outlook but with a deep affinity for the global south at large. His discomfort with structures sustaining global inequality and the discourses shoring up such structures was a clear manifestation of this multifaceted cosmopolitanism. He had a complicated relationship with his home country Malawi, which is an experience shared in some shape or form by many who enjoy the good fortune of discovering the wider world. 

His sad demise in March this year presents an opportunity to reflect on his views on the role of universities and re-examine current practices of internationalisation. Prof. Mkandawire’s scholarship broadly concerned development, with a specific focus on the relationship between the evolution of state institutions and developmental outcomes. He contextualised mainstream positions in development studies by posing a series of fundamental questions: What was driving a society to seek to catch up? Was it the seductive sirens of modernity that have mesmerised the lagging countries so much so that they are drawn into the rat race without fully understanding the consequences? Was it the compulsions of Western imperialism and its homogenising thrust?

He was critical of the impact of Structural Adjustment Policies on economies and communities across Africa but even more outspoken on the deleterious effect they had on indigenous knowledge creation on the continent. In highlighting this last aspect, Prof. Mkandawire artfully embedded the discussion on international higher education within the debate on international development. To cite one instance, he frequently addressed the issue of brain drain from Africa throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Tellingly, he attributed this brain drain not only to the failure of institutional development in Africa but also to a hegemonic imposition and uncritical acceptance of the mindset that dominant epistemic systems contained the answers to all local manifestations of global problems. His analysis shatters our complacency about our ability to understand a particular part of the world when, in fact, that region is sapped of its capacities to generate scholarship. Perpetuation of this dynamic is a self-fulfilling prophecy of many local stories never finding inclusion in global narratives, simply because all that is deemed worthy of attention and academic engagement is emerging from the North. 

In a 2019 interview Prof. Mkandawire noted that while economic slowdowns affecting the Northern economies were often termed “great depression” or “great recession”, such terminology had been conspicuously missing in references to the hardship that most African nations endured throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Pointing this out is his way of indicating to us, as educators, that language matters. Rhetoric in the higher education internationalisation space, in particular, has been carrying the deadweight of terminology such as “capacity building”, “world-class”, “cultural competence” and “culture shock”, all of which attach and ossify associations of creativity with some societies and catch up with others. Saying language matters is letting us know just how far we can go towards achieving our goals by rethinking our labels. 

As an economic thinker, he well appreciated the correlation between an expanded ideational space and the possibilities of better outcomes on the ground. To depart from the orthodoxy in one’s own discipline is never easy, yet Mkandawire’s body of work alerts us to the perils of ahistorical modelling. Applied to the practice of higher education internationalisation, this amounts to an indictment of notions of “best practice”. Taking the longue vue and heeding the lessons of history was another way in which he broke ranks with fellow economists, inspiring us to take a longer-term view of our mission while approaching strategy and planning in education. At this juncture where the web of totalising narratives can only serve to constrain the potential of global education, his call for context dependent analysis and solutions is indeed resonant. Where others saw forgone conclusions, he saw scope to induce intentionality. His dedication to practice-based and practice-led knowledge creation is heartening for those of us who find excitement in the everyday. 

Prof. Mkandawire’s erudition and theoretical rigour were matched by an astute sensibility for what happens when the proverbial rubber hits the road. He was the embodiment of the difference between the ideological grandstanding of the development expert and the nuts and bolts orientation of an international development campaigner. During his inaugural lecture as the Chair of African Development at the London School of Economics, he noted with characteristic humour that African development was “as bewildering a possibility in development studies as the bumblebee is in aerodynamics”. To other practitioners, his enduring message will be that refining conceptual frameworks and upgrading the analytical machinery are poor substitutes for evaluating and influencing the mental maps of policy-makers. His contribution to education could be summed up as challenging epistemic hierarchies and intellectual hegemonies to clear the path for generations of scholars to come, driven by the vision that the future ought to belong to all. Those who take an interest in the internationalisation of higher education will look upon his legacy as a reminder that genius and learning are widely dispersed in our world and seek out a purpose that has thus far been underserved. Those who love to wander will take comfort in his legacy knowing they are not lost and finding fresh energy and much needed assurance to blaze trails. 


Professor Kalyani Unkule is an Associate Professor, Jindal Global Law School and Director (Office of International Affairs and Global Initiatives).


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