Thorny issue of university autonomy and transformation

While most stakeholders agree that South Africa’s higher education sector needs more transformation, what form transformation should take is still a matter for debate – as is the thorny question of university autonomy: how far the government should be able to go to compel universities to transform.

Against the dramatic backdrop of persistent and frequently violent protest action at universities by both students and outsourced contract workers, these issues came under scrutiny during recent public hearings into the Higher Education Amendment Bill.

The bill seeks, among other things, to give the minister of higher education and training powers to set transformation goals for the sector and institute oversight mechanisms to ensure they are reached. The bill also seeks to give the minister a ‘mechanism’ to ensure progress in the area of articulation and recognition of prior learning.

While the bill makes no changes to the powers of university governing structures, specifically councils and senates, it has provoked fears of an erosion of institutional autonomy.

Such fears were vociferously expressed at its first introduction to parliament in November last year by Professor Belinda Bozzoli, the opposition Democratic Alliance’s shadow minister of higher education and training, as “yet another step in the minister’s continued campaign of creeping state capture of higher education institutions”.

The government argues that the bill is necessary to facilitate intervention when management of institutions breaks down or fails to do its job, effectively offering a more ‘proactive’ approach to dealing with dysfunctional institutions, according to ministerial adviser Stephanie Allais.

“Instead of waiting for institutions to be on the brink of collapse before any government action, a preventative and progressive approach by the minister is proposed,” she wrote for Politicsweb.

In addition, the amendments provide the minister with a “range of options” rather than just the appointment of an administrator in the event of serious institutional problems.

Vice-chancellors fear ‘unfettered’ power

Although at pains to acknowledge the need for transformation of the sector, and some role for government in ensuring this happens, representatives of higher education institutions expressed concerns during the hearings over what was termed by Universities South Africa – the body representing all vice-chancellors of public institutions – as the “unfettered” power sought by government to intervene in the matter.

Other problems, it said, were the inroad this power might make on the institutional autonomy of public universities – that autonomy being one of the objects of the legislation – and the lack of definition and common understanding of the term “transformation” which made the proposed provision “vague”, “difficult to implement” and “liable to lead to subjective implementation and thus open to legal challenge”.

The University of Cape Town submission presented by Vice-chancellor Dr Max Price also raised concerns over the implications for institutional autonomy of the bill’s proposal to give the minister the power to issue a directive to a university council where there are grounds to believe that either the council or university management has acted unfairly or with discrimination towards an individual to whom it owes a duty.

“We submit that an individual in such a position will have other remedies in law, and these we believe are the appropriate remedies if the minister is not to be put in a position where the minister takes the role that the courts should properly have,” states the submission.

In his presentation to the portfolio committee on higher education, Price said in its current form, the bill indicated that the opinion of the minister counted above that of the council, which could be suspended in the case of a disagreement.

Not all agree

The universities’ reverent approach to institutional autonomy is not shared by all parties in South Africa.

The perception that universities – particularly previously advantaged institutions – hide behind the concept in order to resist change is prevalent among people frustrated by what they see as the slow rate of change.

For example, the Higher Education Transformation Network or HETN, a national independent network of alumni and graduates pushing for the sector’s transformation, noted in its submission that it believes ministerial interventions should not be limited to cases of financial mismanagement of universities or the loss of statutory council oversight.

In a lengthy submission seemingly aimed at defending the need for transformation rather than reflecting a detailed engagement with the particulars of the bill, HETN states: “We believe that the minister of higher education has the prerogative to also intervene in instances where transformation is not being implemented or is being improperly implemented.”

A new higher education landscape

Although most focus has fallen on ministerial powers, the bill is fairly wide-ranging in its scope, addressing issues such as the registration of private higher education institutions, the limitation of the powers of institutions to invest funds – a move that universities fear may affect their ability to profit from the beneficiation of intellectual property – strengthening the position of institutional forums, and provisions for withdrawing and revoking qualifications that public institutions may award erroneously or fraudulently.

Importantly, the bill updates the higher education legislation by removing ‘technikons’ (polytechnics) as an institutional type.

It seeks to create two new institutions: university colleges and higher education colleges; the former providing a mechanism to enable the growth of new universities under supervision by another; and the latter being focused on undergraduate and skills development programmes.

According to Stephanie Allais, the new institutions “will enable the expansion and differentiation of the public sector in a planned and coherent manner”. How this is to happen is not yet clear.

Both the University of Cape Town and Universities South Africa submissions call for more discussion and clarity over the issue. Essentially, the submissions query the introduction of what appears to be a significant reshaping of the higher educational landscape by means of “subordinate legislation” and without the adequate policy to underpin it.

The Cape Town submission also raises concern that the bill gives the minister the power to compel a public higher education institution to offer a qualification or part qualification on the sub-framework for trades and occupations, which do not ordinarily form the curriculum of a university, and calls for more discussion on this score.

Sector on a knife-edge

The closure of three university campuses in late February owing to ongoing violent protest action over a host of issues ranging from the use of the Afrikaans language in universities to the employment of outsourced workers, has arguably overshadowed what seem to be highly technical debates around institutional autonomy.

Professor Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand or Wits, told University World News that he was “increasingly concerned” by how violence has helped to bring the sector to what he and his counterpart at Rhodes University, Professor Sizwe Mabizela, described in a recent article in the Sunday Times as a “knife-edge”.

“… [P]rotesters have suggested that they do not care whether universities are bankrupted or burnt. They hold that if there is no free education for all, there will be no education at all,” they said.

What about ‘managerial’ autonomy?

Other commentators have suggested that rather than ‘institutional’ autonomy the issue of ‘managerial’ autonomy is more pertinent.

University of Cape Town emeritus professor of political science Andre du Toit told University World News: “Compared to countries like Britain there has been little state interference into institutional autonomy in recent years. In the current South African context defending ‘institutional autonomy’ is hardly the point,” he said.

While du Toit said he had not seen the latest version of the Higher Education Amendment Bill, he understood it primarily as a response to longstanding legal and practical problems with the more dysfunctional among South Africa's 23 universities.

“Theoretically, it could pose a threat to universities generally but in practice universities like Cape Town and Wits are quite capable of taking care of themselves. In these institutions the serious threats to academic freedom and institutional autonomy have come from university management itself,” said du Toit.

Autonomy: A tradeable commodity?

University of Cape Town emeritus professor of philosophy Ian Bunting said autonomy had become a “tradeable commodity” given the speed with which vice-chancellors had “given up their autonomy” and accepted the 0% fee increase proposed by President Jacob Zuma.

“Starting with the 1995 National Commission on Higher Education, universities had insisted that government should not become involved in the regulation of student fees; either in amounts charged or in annual increases,” he said.

“During Naledi Pandor’s term as minister of education, the issue of pegging fees to subsidies was raised. This would have involved the minister approving a set quantum of fee + subsidy income for each university, basically to keep fee increases down to reasonable levels.

“This was rejected by universities on the basis that any regulation of fees, and in particularly the setting of upper limits on increases, would be breaches of their autonomy. The matter was then dropped, leaving universities to continue using fee increases as mechanisms for the balancing of their budgets.

“The result has been that fee increases were always higher than increases in subsidies, and at times nearly double the consumer price index.”

Partly as a result of this, and the way in which individual institutions negotiated deals directly with their students, the sector has been considerably weakened, according to Centre for Higher Education Trust Director Professor Nico Cloete.

“Instead of the vice-chancellors demanding a better deal for higher education, the students did it, but in a chaotic way with numerous unintended consequences. As a result the vice-chancellors seem to be on the back foot, both with government and the students,” said Cloete.

He added: “While the intention to assist institutions may sound laudable, the Department of Higher Education and Training has a history of not seeing crises under its nose, such as last October when students coordinated their strike actions at the National Higher Education Transformation Summit.

“How a deeply un-proactive government department will become proactive with universities may be no more than good bureaucratic intentions, but just as likely, political smoke and mirrors.”