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Exploring Anti-Democratic Practices in University Policy-Steerage, Management and Governance in Malawi: A Critical Theory Approach

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posted on 2021-11-15, 05:01 authored by Shawa, Lester Brian

This thesis draws on Critical Theory as advanced by Critical Theorists in the tradition of the Frankfurt School to explore the nature of anti-democratic practices within policy-steerage, management and governance of university education in Malawi. The thesis critiques instrumental use of reason and neopatrimonial aspects that permeate policy-steerage, management and governance of the university sector in Malawi, and suggests ways of emancipation or social change.

Two philosophical ideas inform analysis of this emancipatory project: dialectical reasoning as advanced by the first generation Critical Theorists such as Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse and communicative rationality, which is complemented by the theory of the lifeworld as advanced by the second generation Critical Theorist, Habermas. Dialectical reasoning entails understanding things as they are now and what they might be in future, as such, it is a useful idea for emancipation in that it fosters constant questioning (reflexivity) on the part of actors to make things better. Communicative rationality entails that actors seek to reach common understanding and coordinate actions by reasoned arguments, consensus and cooperation rather than instrumental reasoning and is useful for attaining social change (Habermas, 1984, 1987). Data sources comprise global policy debates, policy documents and interviews with selected government policymakers, Malawian civil society, university administrators and leaders of university staff and student unions.

The thesis reveals that at international policy-steerage level, university policy-making in Malawi is chiefly orchestrated by the World Bank using its economic power and the global-neoliberal logic. In this logic, Malawi follows the dictates of the powerful World Bank. Thus, the argument presented is that the World Bank’s university policy-steerage in Malawi follows instrumental rationality and is anti-democratic. Instrumental reasoning refers to the deliberate use of the power of reason for social control or manipulation. At university level, the thesis reveals a rivalry relationship among stakeholders which leads to constrained collegial governance. The thesis shows that the neopatrimonial attitude of presidentialism or the big-man syndrome, which permeates the management and governance of universities in Malawi, perpetuates instrumental use of reason and renders the system anti-democratic. At Malawi Government university policy-steerage level, the thesis shows problems associated with the usage of power by state presidents who are also chancellors of public universities. At this level, policy-steerage is interventionist and characterised by both neopatrimonial aspects of the big-man syndrome and patron-client relationships that lead to instrumental use of reason.

Based on this Critical Theory analysis, a theory of university management and governance for Malawian universities is presented aimed at achieving emancipation. To achieve social change there is a need to challenge instrumental ways of reasoning and neopatrimonial aspects by employing dialectical reasoning and communicative rationality.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Educational Psychology and Pedagogy


Doyle, Stephanie; Strathdee, Rob