University autonomy vs public accountability in HE act?

The famously imprecise line between institutional autonomy and public accountability is under the spotlight in South Africa as Higher Education and Training Minister Dr Blade Nzimande prepares to amend the Higher Education Act in a process that will become public in the new year.

A Higher Education Amendment Draft Bill was submitted to the National Assembly last Friday after being approved by cabinet.

Calls for the government to intervene in universities’ transformation agendas have surfaced more frequently over the past weeks, which have seen unprecedented student protest across the country.

While priority has been given in these protests to the pressing issue of student fees and affordability of higher education, broader concerns around the slow pace of transformation – including institutional culture, language and curriculum reform – remain ongoing.

Among the resolutions emerging from the Second National Higher Education Summit hosted by the Higher Education and Training Ministry and held in Durban last month was the need for an “interrogation of the balance between the institutional autonomy of universities and their public accountability”.

Calls for government intervention

The resolution followed repeated calls for greater government intervention from student groups and other stakeholders such as the Higher Education Transformation Network, or HETN, which called for ministerial appointments to constitute 50% of university councils.

HETN spokesperson Hendrick Makaneta last week reaffirmed his organisation’s call for the “eradication” of institutional autonomy, which, he told University World News, had been used by universities “to frustrate the process of transformation”.

The network is also calling for individual institutional statutes to be amended so that transformation becomes a key performance area for vice-chancellors. The network also wants to see a new way in which vice-chancellors are appointed, with greater emphasis on stakeholder involvement.

Frustrated at a perceived slow pace of change, student groups have also expressed their support for more government intervention.

In the closing comments of the summit, South African Union of Students representative Tebogo Thothela said transformation indicators must be introduced. The previous day, South African Students Congress, or SASCO, President Ntuthuko Makhombothi had described institutional autonomy as “the elephant in the room”.

“It’s not enough that the minister can intervene [in institutions] when financial problems arise. He must be able to intervene when universities fail to transform. Some are deliberately refusing to transform, so it will never happen,” he told delegates.

Public participation in amendment

Ministerial spokesperson Khaye Nkwanyana told University World News that public participation in the amendment process would start next year with parliamentary engagement, “and immediately a draft Bill will be opened for public comments”.

He said it would be an open process with “all stakeholders from universities and others being involved to make contributions.”

Asked about the likely contents of the amendments, he wrote in an email: “Obviously, government will not be blind to the key transformative issues that are most urgent now, where government needs to strengthen its hand through legislation then this will be an opportunity in the amendment process to do so.”

Vice-chancellors and university stakeholders are keenly awaiting the start of the public consultation relating to the amendments but at this point remain in the dark about specifics.

Need to talk, say universities

Universities South Africa chair Professor Adam Habib, who is vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand or Wits, said “a precise conversation” was needed on the issue of where institutional autonomy ends and public accountability begins.

“We are not against transformation, but we need to talk about the details,” he told University World News.

Habib said there had never been a situation where Universities South Africa or vice-chancellors had taken a position that institutional autonomy was completely “independent” of any other responsibility.

He said that Universities South Africa would never condone a situation in which individuals or stakeholders used institutional autonomy to support their own agendas.

He called for all parties to be “thoughtful” on the issue of how to strengthen public accountability mechanisms. “We need to know what mechanisms are proposed, what form they will take and how they will be constructed.

“I’m saying both sides need to be thoughtful,” he said.

Habib said it was also important to remember in the design of mechanisms that transformation agendas and imperatives were different in each of South Africa’s universities – even among those regarded as historically advantaged.

His own institution, Wits, had already introduced a detailed eight-point plan in April aimed at accelerating the pace of transformation, he said.

Bill slated by the opposition

In a statement on 8 November Belinda Bozzoli, shadow minister of higher education and training, called on Nzimande to withdraw the draft bill, which she said aimed to increase the power of the minister to intervene in various university matters, particularly transformation and institutional breakdown.

It would for instance enable the minister to “determine transformation goals for the higher education system and institute appropriate oversight mechanisms”, said Bozzoli. The problem was not with transformative goals per se, but with the breadth and vagueness of the proposed intervention and the “invasion by the minister into university decision-making".

“In our view, the draft bill is yet another step in the minister’s continued campaign of creeping state capture of higher education institutions.

“It is ironic – if not tragic – that the very minister under whose watch university education has floundered, under whom one third of the sector is likely to declare bankruptcy in the next few months, and under whom turmoil, anger and instability prevail, should believe that further intervention by himself would offer a solution.”