An amendment bill on higher education which, if passed in its current form, could curtail the autonomy and academic freedom enjoyed by universities is on the cards.
The draft bill was quietly announced in Parliament last week and took many by surprise as it was widely expected to only be introduced next year.
The bill will grant extraordinary discretionary powers to Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande to intervene arbitrarily at universities.
It proposes that the minister:
. Should be allowed to determine transformation objectives and put appropriate mechanisms in place to ensure these objectives are met;
. Should be allowed to change processes, procedures and mandates of universities, university colleges and other higher education institutions;
. May take action against institutions that treat anyone unfairly or discriminate against anyone;
. May, under specific conditions, withhold or withdraw money granted to a university; and
. May appoint an independent assessor who can place the university or institution under administration without consulting the institution’s board.
Nzimande has been at loggerheads with universities over the issue of institutional autonomy. Earlier this week, he emphasised in parliamentary committee meetings that a balance must be found between autonomy and accountability at universities.
But the DA wants the bill withdrawn, saying it would give Nzimande too much power over universities.
Organisations that sided with the ANC would benefit from it, while those belonging to other parties would be marginalised, it added.
Professor Wim de Villiers, principal of the University of Stellenbosch, said academic freedom was the cornerstone of higher education worldwide, but this freedom and autonomy was placed at risk if influential institutions such as the state, religious institutions or the business sector wanted to guide academic institutions according to their own motives and goals.
“In South Africa, we must learn from the mistakes of our past and prevent an unhealthy relationship being enforced between universities and the government of the day again.”
Professor André Duvenhage, lecturer in political science at North-West University (NWU), said the bill in its current form would give the ANC “political control” of universities. “The universities were outside the ANC’s sphere of influence from the outset, and if Nzimande interferes, it will allow the ANC to exercise political control and to take over the universities.”
Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, said it was essential that the right balance be found between institutional autonomy and social responsibility. “Wits is not opposed to talks about a regulatory regime at universities.
“As far as transformation is concerned – it is the universities’ constitutional responsibility to remedy the inequalities of the past,” said Habib.
Theuns Eloff, chairperson of the FW de Klerk Foundation and former vice-chancellor of the NWU, said there were also positive aspects in the legislation, such as anti-corruption measures that should be welcomed.
But Eloff said he was worried that the legislation would give the minister and the ANC indirect control of universities as public institutions.
Nzimande’s spokesperson couldn’t be reached for comment.