Could it be that some university leaders are trying to place universities above society and government?
Since the Higher Education Laws Amendment Act first went to Parliament there has been much public debate over university autonomy, academic freedom and public accountability.
The spectre of state interference in the work of the universities has been raised, generating fears of political interference by a minister bent on extending his control and crushing any opposition to it. On the other side, some universities leaders have been accused of trying to run fiefdoms, untrammelled by constraints from government or society.
Universities are important public institutions and must make a contribution towards achieving the country's overall developmental priorities. They have a crucial role to play in this regard — as educators of our youth and as key nodes of knowledge creation, innovation and creative thinking.
Society expects universities to carry out their roles responsibly, use their resources wisely and honestly, practise good governance and management, uphold our democratic values and contribute towards developing our economic, social and cultural life. This requires universities to engage with the rest of society, including with the state, civil society, businesses and other citizens. The relationship between universities and the state, in particular, is at the core of the debates about institutional autonomy, academic freedom and public accountability.
A good place to start in a discussion of the relationship between these concepts is the (former) department of education's 1997 white paper, A Programme for Higher Education Transformation.
Institutional autonomy, according to the white paper, "refers to a high degree of self-regulation and administrative independence with respect to student admissions, curriculum, methods of teaching and assessment, research, establishment of academic regulations and the internal management of resources generated from private and public sources. Such autonomy is a condition of effective self-government."
This recognises that, if universities are to contribute meaningfully towards fulfilling their role, they need to be relatively autonomous from the state. Such autonomy is necessary for the effective governance of universities as institutions.
But it is not a sacred principle of democracy, as some people have made it out to be.
The white paper goes on to say: "However, there is no moral basis for using the principle of institutional autonomy as a pretext for resisting democratic change or in defence of mismanagement. Institutional autonomy is, therefore, inextricably linked to the demands of public accountability.
"The principle of public accountability implies that institutions are answerable for their actions and decisions not only to their own governing bodies and the institutional community but also to the broader society.
"Firstly, it requires that institutions receiving public funds should be able to report how and how well money has been spent. Secondly, it requires that institutions should demonstrate the results they achieve with the resources at their disposal. Thirdly, it requires that institutions should demonstrate how they have met national goals and priorities."
Ordinarily the above should have long closed this debate and we should be focused on how we achieve institutional autonomy in an accountable way. Could it be that this issue continues to bedevil us because some university leaders are trying to stretch the envelope and place universities above society and government?
As minister, I have made certain interventions into poorly functioning institutions and initiated legislation to make such interventions more effective. These actions have been characterised by some as threats not only to university autonomy but even to our constitutional freedoms.
The right to academic freedom
Jeremy Gauntlett, for example, in a speech at the University of Johannesburg in May, called institutional autonomy "a subtheme of academic freedom" and argued that the right to academic freedom "also includes institutional autonomy" ("Minister given a blue light to ride roughshod over academic rights", Mail & Guardian, May 17).
This line of argument, I suspect, is because our Constitution guarantees "academic freedom and freedom of scientific research" (but not institutional autonomy) and Gauntlett is keen to characterise the Higher Education Laws Amendment Act as unconstitutional. But institutional autonomy and academic freedom are not the same.
The white paper states: "The principle of academic freedom implies the absence of outside interference, censure or obstacles in the pursuit and practice of academic work. It is a precondition for critical, experimental and creative thought and, therefore, for the advancement of intellectual inquiry and knowledge. Academic freedom and scientific inquiry are fundamental rights protected by the Constitution."
The white paper thus clearly understands there to be a difference between institutional autonomy and academic freedom, defining the two concepts quite differently.
Obviously I am aware that institutional autonomy and academic freedom can reinforce one another. If the state was to try to dictate what kind of research should be done by academics, how they should interpret their research findings or to dictate what kinds of theory or what literature should be taught, then one would hope that the institutions would defend the academic freedom of their scholars, using all the powers and resources at their disposal.
But, conversely, it is also true that the principles of institutional autonomy and academic freedom can be in conflict with one another. University managers could use their power to intimidate academics to reach particular conclusions or coerce them to promote particular ideologies. Or they could use their power to ensure that certain academics are appointed or not appointed because of their views on politics, religion or science.
This was clearly the case under apartheid, with leaders appointed directly or indirectly by the state to ensure that academics were not overly critical of apartheid policies. This was, of course, worse at universities for blacks and at the Afrikaans universities than it was at the more liberal white universities.
Interestingly, some of the language used to criticise the Higher Education Laws Amendment Act of 2012, as well as interventions at some of the institutions where good governance has broken down, is reminiscent of the language used under apartheid by the white, liberal universities. They used it to defend their staff and students against harassment or arrest and to claim the right to criticise the government's racist policies. This resistance was an attempt to restrict an oppressive state and to keep tyranny at bay.
Now, however, a similar opposition is mounted by some to limit the interventions of an elected government to ensure good governance and to fight mismanagement and corruption. This appears to represent a liberal, knee-jerk reaction that attempts to limit the powers of the state wherever it can; and, in the process, it (consciously or unconsciously) opposes attempts to transform South Africa in the interest of the less privileged and the poor.
Although the government recognises the importance of institutional autonomy and academic freedom, this does not mean that it has no interest in influencing what happens in universities or what is taught there. Clearly it does; this is part of trying to ensure that universities are responsive to social needs. But government influence must be exercised by persuasion or by offering inducements such as earmarked funding, not through administrative fiat.
Lastly, I would like to reflect briefly on what I think the main imperatives are for the post-school system, including the universities. I believe that we need to focus our energies and resources on expanding the post-school system to cater for the 3.4-million 15- to 24-year-olds who are not in employment, education or training. We must reduce the high drop-out rates throughout the post-school system and step up significantly the numbers of postgraduate students. In addition, we need to ensure that the post-school system is highly articulated so that there are no dead ends and students can continue their education and improve their qualifications without unnecessary obstacles.
The universities have a particularly important role to play in strengthening the post-school system, for example, by training staff for other post-school institutions, through research or by developing mutually beneficial partnerships with colleges and employers. To do these things, and to attend effectively to their other ongoing work, universities must function effectively and care for the resources that are in their charge.
If there are any extraordinary interventions by government in the work of universities, it will be for the sake of ensuring that universities are able to carry out their functions and do not misuse the trust that the country puts in them. There will not be political interventions that impact on the rights of university councils, managers or academics. To imply that our interventions are comparable to those of the apartheid government is not only an insult to our government, it is also reflects a paranoia that is at odds with reality or an attempt to blackmail government into inaction.
Blade Nzimande is minister of higher education and training. This is an abridged and edited version of his introductory address to the seminar on university autonomy, academic freedom and public accountability at the University of Johannesburg on September 25