/ 23 September 2008

Govt funding under the spotlight

The government must be willing to discuss its funding decisions with universities when it allocates money for specific purposes, other than subsidies.

This is one of the recommendations of an independent task team appointed by the Council on Higher Education (CHE) to investigate academic freedom, institutional autonomy and public accountability in higher education.

The task team, appointed in 2005, conducted research and held forums to extract information from institutions. Before a final report is submitted to the Education Minister Naledi Pandor, the CHE will make recommendations. It is waiting for public comment.

In the past few years, the education department selected funding to many universities for specific projects that have met its approval. It has had a bias towards funding science, engineering and technology projects, in line with the country’s human resource needs.

But some universities are unhappy about the apparent lack of transparency over the allocations and others feel short-changed as they have received less.

The task team’s report states that public funding of universities — at a time of increased demands for higher education accountability internationally — “will inevitably — and not without justification — be used to change the behaviour of public universities”.

It says that universities’ concerns about government steering through funding do not currently emphasise infringements on academic freedom nor perceived threats to their autonomy. There is, however, anxiety about a form of financial steering which “fails to accommodate institutional differences and individual needs”.

It warns that if left unaddressed lack of transparency by government in funding matters could lay the ground for unwarranted direct government interference in the affairs of higher education institutions.

It says that any attempt to fashion a new approach to academic freedom in South Africa should include, among others: facilitating the production of present and future social goods in a way that is congruent with the imperatives of the Constitution; articulate the relationship between academic freedom, intellectual responsibility and social accountability; protect the freedom of expression of academics — and also of students — from undue sanction by their own institution; and it must account for the relative freedoms and vulnerabilities of different groups in a university.

The task team recommends that universities should report to the parliamentary portfolio committee on education, as a means of broadening public debate on higher education’s purposes in South Africa. Currently universities submit reports to the education department.

Furthermore, a mechanism should be identified to close the gap between university councils and society. The report says that a well-functioning and transparent operating forum of council and ministry members could serve as a proxy for a regulatory instrument in this regard.

It points out that building the fiduciary capacity of councils has been discussed an ongoing issue and cites research which reiterates aspects such as having a more inclusive constituency representation (including religious leaders, school principals, leaders of grassroots women’s groups) on councils to enhance accountability without increasing government control.

Furthermore there should be improved induction of council members to clarify the roles and responsibilities of members as well as annual self-evaluation.

Other recommendations include academic freedom being supported by a range of potential forms of empowerment of academics, students and other stakeholders and their freedoms at sectoral, institutional and academic levels of governance.

It recommends that relationships between institutional managers, academics and students should reinforce scholarly freedom, academic rule and a climate of free expression inside higher education institutions.

Deputy Director General of higher education Dr Molapo Qhobela said: “We are awaiting formal advice from the CHE on their report.”

The report may be accessed at www.che.ac.za