The future of Angolan knowledge

Academics in Angola’s public universities are on strike. But instead of only being concerned with the decay of higher education, they are connecting with the struggles of Angola’s working class.

Traffic jam in Luanda, 2008. Image credit Ossy via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0.

Angolan professors are on strike for the third time in two years. The absence of public funding and concrete reform policies subject Angolan public higher education institutions to cyclical crises. The budget allocated for public universities and institutes serves only to pay the salaries of teachers and administrators. It serves only to buy expendable materials, such as paper and ink cartridges for printers. Scientific research is a mirage. The few academic journals that exist are subsisting with great difficulty.

For example, the Faculty of Social Sciences at the Agostinho Neto University, the oldest institution in the country and its main university, publishes the Angolan journal Mulemba. Yet this journal has not been published since 2016 due to a lack of funds. From time to time, there has been basic and cosmetic maintenance of equipment to justify public spending: fixing or replacing air conditioners, buying water to fill reservoirs, fixing windows and doors, and buying diesel for generators. Meanwhile, the library needed to support existing undergraduate and postgraduate courses is grossly inadequate. It lacks even the basics for students who study the social sciences or humanities.

The academy’s financial precarity is not new. A World Bank study from the mid-2000s revealed that among African countries, Angola had some of the least investment in public higher education. It came after Cape Verde (which as of 2023 has significantly improved from the position it held in the World Bank study), and the Comoros Islands. As a result, on the African continent, Angolan universities are among the worst in terms of quality. According to one international ranking, Agostinho Neto University is not even among the 350 best in Africa. Agostinho Neto was ranked 361st, while the second university in the country—the Universidade Óscar Ribas—appeared at 692. No Angolan university makes Africa’s Top 200 ranking. The low level of scientific production, lack of adequate infrastructures, non-transparent selection processes for professors, and extremely low public funding have created this terrible situation for Angolan higher-ed.

The problems are not only material. Another factor influencing the negative assessment of Angolan universities at the continental level is their lack of academic freedom. Although the faculties of each public university elect their Deans (a change slated for 2019 but then delayed to 2022 due to the pandemic), intimidation and political pressure remain a constant and evident climate. A hierarchical system that makes new professors dependent on senior professors puts junior professors at the whims of those with more tenure at the university.

Added to this are long hours and precarious contracts. There are also vigilant colleagues who are MPLA party members (i.e. The People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola, Angola’s ruling party), and security service informants have infiltrated institutions. Then, longstanding and loyal MPLA party members (related to Angola’s oligarchies) control many university institutions, especially the public ones. At private universities, members of the governing party lobby the managers and administrators. This situation constrains research activity. It especially constrains research in the humanities and social sciences, limiting the possibility of analyzing the main social and political processes unfolding in the country. This also has repercussions for Sindicato Nacional dos Professores de Ensino Superior (SINPES), the union which advocates for professors’ rights and the general restructuring of public higher education.

Protests over working conditions and the current political and economic crisis are not limited to university professors. Indeed, the current political climate in the country remains tense. The tensions follow the August 2022 elections—which were widely contested by the opposition for an alleged lack of transparency. Continuous criticism from artists, academics, and journalists characterizes present-day Angola. Members of the MPLA itself (starting with the family of the former president José Eduardo dos Santos), and the “street,” sometimes in the form of silent demonstrations like stay-at-homes, also continually criticize the country. Therefore those in political power feel threatened when university teachers strike and other professionals who play a key role in the country, like doctors, regularly join them.

From the point of view of the ruling MPLA party-state, anything that endangers the “stability” of the government represents a threat. It is a threat to be contained and, if possible, eliminated. This approach is not new. What is novel, is that the government always considered university teachers to be the “upper crust” of society. Therefore it considers them partly disconnected from the social struggles of other segments of the Angolan population.

This current set of crises emerges from the lack of effective working conditions: degradation and dispersal of university facilities, poor salaries compared to those of universities in Namibia, South Africa, and the Republic of Congo, and the absence of mobility in one’s teaching career. Additionally, continuing education courses for teaching and administrative staff are lacking. This has pushed some professors to draw connections with the struggles of other sectors of society and to take action.

That action has provoked state anger. Academic union members received the same veiled and explicit threats as other categories of workers. Pressure comes from outside and inside higher education institutions in the form of threats of violence, termination of contracts, and persecution. Arbitrary disciplinary cases attempts at corruption, and the silence of some academic managers in the face of such abuses, are also forms of pressure. Trade union activity thus presents a dangerous combination of risks—threats to life, the degradation of material conditions and subsistence, as well as social and political isolation.

The current strike has a history. In 2018, SINPES submitted, for the second consecutive year, a set of eight demands to the University and the Ministry of Education. Three years later, in 2021, none of the points had been met. The union once again called for a halt in teaching and research activities. Of the eight points the union presented, only five were fully met.

The three most fractious issues remained in the balance: a 100 percent increase in the basic salary (before the strike a full professor earned roughly 400 thousand kwanzas per month, less than 1000 USD). Following this was the issue of the provision of health insurance (many teachers have no savings for medical assistance and die in hospitals). Finally, there was the issue of support for continuing education and decent facilities (the infrastructure is precarious and insufficient—on the campus of the Agostinho Neto University, the facilities do not meet five percent of projected enrollment and needs).

The 2021 the SINPES strike paralyzed university activities in the public sector for about three months. It did so amid the pandemic, forcing the employer to the negotiating table. A wave of street demonstrations succeeded in bringing the employer to the negotiating table for a series of six meetings. In and around campuses the demonstrators called for a negotiation between the union and the ministry in charge. They called for the ministerial portfolio to mediate for labor, employment, and social security. The union was adamant in its position. It forced the ministry to sign a memorandum of understanding on November 17, 2021. Classes resumed the following week with the public promise that the government would do everything to meet the demands.

Pressed by the pre-electoral climate at the time, the UNITA (The National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, the main opposition) and MPLA parliamentary groups sought to meet with the union. UNITA, in an attempt to advocate with the Angolan parliament, proposed that members of parliament discuss the teachers’ strike in parliament. The MPLA parliamentary group, which holds a majority, voted against this.

The Ministry of Higher Education committed itself to making the election of the governing bodies in public universities a reality. At the same time, professors delivered a proposal for a salary increase that awaited the consent of the President of the Republic, João Lourenço. Despite these negotiations, Lourenço took a cheap shot. He stated that compared to the teachers’ strike, the doctors’ strike had a greater social impact for obvious reasons.

At the end of November 2021, classes and all university activities resumed. The Ministry of Education signed a memorandum with the union promising to analyze and respond to the points of disagreement. SINPES asserted that in the event of non-compliance, the strike would resume on January 3rd, 2022 without prior notice. When the government failed to meet its promises, teachers went on strike from January to May 2022. The union and the public sector university teachers resisted the silence of Lourenço and the threats to reduce the salaries of those who joined the strike.

Private universities continued their activities undisturbed. Their actions undermined the claims of public higher education teachers. Private institution administrations and faculties have not expressed any solidarity with public universities. Nothing the union does, not even social agitation, has been enough to disturb the silence of the private higher education professors. And, of course, some professors straddle public and private institutions in order to make a living. These professors become “turbo-teachers” who earn multiple salaries by jumping from one university to another. They have weekly working hours that make any kind of research activity impossible. This further lowers the quality of the teaching on offer.

On February 27th, 2023, the union decreed a new strike. This strike has already lasted around 60 days, and there is no end in sight. In opposition and in contravention of the strike law of 1992, the supervising ministry instructed university managers to discount the strikers’ salaries to dissuade them from action.

Since the strike resumed in February, no negotiations have taken place. The union has expressed its position via radio (particularly the Catholic-owned station and the UNITA-owned station). Meanwhile the Minister of Education, regularly speaks on state and private television. Not only that, on March 28 of this year, the professors’ union general secretary, Eduardo Peres Alberto, and members of his family received death threats. One anonymous message read: “You want to go too far with the strike, then don’t say you had no warning.” On April 10 this year, Peres Alberto received more intimidating text messages threatening family members. He then found his residence vandalized. Despite filing a complaint with criminal investigation police, the intimidation of Alberto Peres and his relatives continues.

In fact, on April 25 of this year, two men physically attacked Peres Alberto’s eldest daughter with toxic gas. The victim is in the hospital and under medical care now. There has been a wave of solidarity on her behalf, with public notes of repudiation and protest. The secretary general of the union denounced this act on the radio and called on the police to find those responsible. Peres Alberto affirmed that he would not give up the union struggle. This violent attack is a reminder that trade union action puts union members at risk. It should surprise none that few citizens are willing to take it, especially since one sometimes risks family members being made targets.

The future of Angola’s universities is bleak. Indeed, there is no sign of government interest in successfully concluding the current crisis. The position of the Angolan academy is precarious, especially at public institutions of higher education. This is because together with teachers’ salaries, the possibility of carrying out research, publishing, and of internationalizing the Angolan university is worsening.

But the strike also signals some change in public consciousness and solidarity. Unlike in the past, this struggle became relatively popular by linking academics’ demands with the general context of post-election protests. The decision to suspend instruction has brought the attention of many quarters of Angolan society to a set of problems in higher education that go beyond the question of compensation. But the problems facing higher education go far beyond this. The future of the Angolan university must be framed within a more general reform of Angolan education. This includes more financial resources, fewer political constraints, and a vision of how and why education matters to the country.

About the Author

Gilson Lázaro is an associate professor in the Sociology Department at Agostinho Neto University and an investigator at the Center for African Studies at the Catholic University of Angola.

Luca Bussotti is a professor at the Technical University of Mozambique. He has published almost 100 articles in scientific journals all over the world and about 20 books.

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