Varsity’s voices of dissent gagged

The Council on Higher Education (CHE) has decided to suppress the report of its own audit of the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Why?

All reputable higher education systems have independent quality assurance and South Africa’s is set up in terms of the 1997 Higher Education Act. The responsibility rests with the CHE and its standing committee, the higher education quality committee (HEQC). Audits are conducted in terms of 19 formal criteria and by a panel of trained auditors.

In October 2008 I chaired the UKZN audit panel, which comprised eight members. We considered a roomful of evidence, conducted five site visits and interviewed more than 400 people over a period of five days. Our final report was submitted to the HEQC in June 2009, but has never been released.

The ostensible reason for abandoning the audit was the leak of a letter I wrote to the then chairperson of the HEQC a few weeks after our audit panel finished its work — the letter was published in The Mercury in January 2009. One of the panel’s conclusions had been that the university was at risk because of widely held perceptions that academic freedom was in jeopardy. We had recommended that, rather than taking disciplinary action against staff complaining of violations of academic freedom, UKZN’s council and executive management should take a conciliatory approach.

Within a few weeks of our making this recommendation known to UKZN’s vice-chancellor, the council of the university decided to continue its practice of disciplining senior academic staff who complained about violations of academic freedom. As chairperson of the audit panel I had felt obliged to bring this to the attention of the HEQC.

Was the leak of my letter to the press enough reason for the CHE to abandon the entire audit? Hardly. The further disciplinary action was widely reported. And the information on the audit contained in this letter was, by then, already in the public domain. This is because, at the end of every institutional audit conducted by the HEQC, the chair of the audit panel is required to provide oral feedback. This provides the university with an overview of how the final report will shape up.

Although this oral feedback is not formally part of the report, it is a written statement that has previously been agreed on by the audit panel. The vice-chancellor of the university being audited decides who can be present to hear the statement (indeed, the vice-chancellor can choose to hear it alone). In the case of the UKZN audit, the vice-chancellor decided not only to open the oral feedback session to anyone who wished to attend, but also that it should be made available to anyone in the university via a live video stream on the internet. This duly happened on October 24 2008.

Our oral statement ran to 14 pages and made 45 points that broadly presaged the recommendations and commendations that would appear in the formal and final report of June 2009. Four of these concerned institutional culture and academic freedom. We reported that “interviews with cross-sections of staff and students as well as with external stakeholders suggest that there is what has been described as a ‘culture of hostility'” and “that some aspects of this situation are expressed as lack of academic freedom at the university”. We had “found evidence of stifled debate about institutional matters and of debates conducted in ways which obfuscate rather than elucidate issues”. We concluded that “one of UKZN’s greatest transformative challenges is to rise above the ingrained, destructive tendencies that are stifling debate and to create a new culture of participative and democratic debate that supports academic freedom in its broader sense”.

Shortly after we delivered this oral summary of our findings, the UKZN council challenged the legitimacy of our work and our conclusions by initiating new disciplinary action. In my letter to the chairperson of the HEQC, I wrote that “I consider this to be a direct affront to the audit panel and to the HEQC. Given that, predictably, the matter has been immediately taken up in the media, there is the potential for serious damage to the credibility of the institutional audit process and the HEQC.”

The vice-chancellor of UKZN complained that my letter demonstrated a personal bias against the university that had compromised the audit process. The CHE has upheld the vice-chancellor’s complaint and has suppressed the audit report (CHE, “Resolution on the Audit of the University of KwaZulu-Natal”, October 2010).

The CHE’s reasoning, as explained in this resolution, is, to say the least, questionable. First, the audit panel’s recommendations had been shaped long before January 2009, when my letter was leaked to the press. Indeed, they had been relayed openly three months before to anyone who cared to listen in the open feedback session to the UKZN community on the last day of the audit panel’s interviews.

Second, it is an evident tautology to conclude, as the CHE does in its formal resolution suppressing the report, that “it is unable to firmly conclude that the letter from the chair of the audit panel did not have an impact on the drafting of Audit Report”. My letter reported the unanimous decision of the audit panel on one aspect of the audit’s conclusions, and obviously this view had an impact on the report.

Third, it stretches credibility to accept, as the CHE does, that any personal bias that I might hold could mesmerise an eight-member panel made up of senior academics and administrators from seven different South African universities and an independent auditor from Australia. It is rather the case, as our audit report makes clear, that by the end of a week in which we held 36 exhaustive interview sessions, we were all in agreement about our commendations of good practice in research, teaching and community engagement, and in our recommendations for improvements.

Were it to have been released, our audit report would have been found to be a thorough and balanced evaluation of one of South Africa’s leading universities. It details and commends significant achievements and presents a range of evidence-based recommendations for continuing improvement. The report’s reasoned and evidence-based findings on institutional culture and academic freedom would have helped the university move on from a difficult phase in its history.
The Higher Education Act of 1997 seeks to “respect and encourage democracy, academic freedom, freedom of speech and expression, creativity, scholarship and research”.

The CHE has a statutory obligation to advance this objective. In deciding to suppress the entire audit, the CHE has been distracted by one media report about information that was already in the public domain and has set aside the finding of its own review committee that the audit report meets required standards. Whose interests does this serve? Certainly, neither the public interest nor the interests of UKZN.

Professor Martin Hall is vice-chancellor of the University of Salford in the United Kingdom

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