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Universities round on Nzimande and his Higher Education Amendment Bill

By pushing through "devastating" legal amendments that will allow him to intervene in university governance "very much at whim", Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande has been accused of snubbing South Africa's most influential tertiary voices.

Both Higher Education South Africa (Hesa), which represents all 23 vice-chancellors of the universities, and the Council on Higher Education (CHE), the statutory body that advises Nzimande, said this week that he did not consult them about  the amendment.

The Higher Education and Training Laws Amendment Bill essentially simplifies the process through which the government can place a university under administration and sanctions other kinds of government interventions. Parliament voted in favour of the Bill last week and it is now before the National Council of Provinces.

But both Hesa and the council say the Bill seriously weakens university autonomy. Its amendments were "devastating" and it was "extraordinarily disappointing" that the vice-chancellors' body was not consulted before the Bill went to Parliament, Hesa chairperson Ahmed Bawa said.

"Under normal circumstances, as was the practice in the past, the minister would have consulted us on his intentions to introduce new amendments to the Act and would have given a context for the new amendments and the inadequacies they seek to address in the current legislative framework," said Bawa.

At whim
The amendments were not only "unnecessary", but also allowed the minister to intervene in the affairs of universities "very much at whim", said Bawa, who is also vice-chancellor of the Durban University of Technology.

The council's head, Ahmed Essop, said: "Given the substantive nature of the amendments and the implications for institutional autonomy, it would have been prudent for the minister, in the interests of good governance, to seek the advice of the council as well as to consult with Hesa and other stakeholders."

In its submission to Parliament's higher education portfolio committee, the council asked that it be invited to advise Nzimande on the "merits and implications of the amendments for the governance of public higher education institutions", Essop said.

But the committee "clearly did not agree with the request", he said. And "the fact that the Bill was passed without any changes suggests that the portfolio committee did not agree with issues raised in [the council's] submission" either, he added.

Some clauses that the council and Hesa separately identified as "wide-ranging", "vague", "broad", "open-ended" and "impinging on institutional autonomy" remain in the Bill.

Thandwa Mthembu, vice-chancellor of the Free State's Central University of Technology, said the Bill gave Nzimande powers to control universities at will. "We can have directives from the minister on just about anything, [for example], if a member of the public, a staff member or a student is not happy about something."

Redundant
That, coupled with the Bill's clause that universities must report to Nzimande on a quarterly basis instead of annually as before, rendered councils, the highest governing structures in universities, redundant, Mthembu said. "Perhaps, according to the minister, we don't need councils y pushing through "devastating" legal amendments that will allow him to intervene in university governance "very much at whim", Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande has been accused of snubbing South Africa's most influential tertiary voices.

Both Higher Education South Africa (Hesa), which represents all 23 vice-chancellors of the universities, and the Council on Higher Education (CHE), the statutory body that advises Nzimande, said this week that he did not consult them about  the amendment.

The Higher Education and Training Laws Amendment Bill essentially simplifies the process through which the government can place a university under administration and sanctions other kinds of government interventions. Parliament voted in favour of the Bill last week and it is now before the National Council of Provinces.

But both Hesa and the council say the Bill seriously weakens university autonomy. Its amendments were "devastating" and it was "extraordinarily disappointing" that the vice-chancellors' body was not consulted before the Bill went to Parliament, Hesa chairperson Ahmed Bawa said.

"Under normal circumstances, as was the practice in the past, the minister would have consulted us on his intentions to introduce new amendments to the Act and would have given a context for the new amendments and the inadequacies they seek to address in the current legislative framework," said Bawa.

The amendments were not only "unnecessary", but also allowed the minister to intervene in the affairs of universities "very much at whim", said Bawa, who is also vice-chancellor of the Durban University of Technology.

The council's head, Ahmed Essop, said: "Given the substantive nature of the amendments and the implications for institutional autonomy, it would have been prudent for the minister, in the interests of good governance, to seek the advice of the council as well as to consult with Hesa and other stakeholders."

In its submission to Parliament's higher education portfolio committee, the council asked that it be invited to advise Nzimande on the "merits and implications of the amendments for the governance of public higher education institutions", Essop said.

Disagreeing
But the committee "clearly did not agree with the request", he said. And "the fact that the Bill was passed without any changes suggests that the portfolio committee did not agree with issues raised in [the council's] submission" either, he added.

Some clauses that the council and Hesa separately identified as "wide-ranging", "vague", "broad", "open-ended" and "impinging on institutional autonomy" remain in the Bill.

Thandwa Mthembu, vice-chancellor of the Free State's Central University of Technology, said the Bill gave Nzimande powers to control universities at will. "We can have directives from the minister on just about anything, [for example], if a member of the public, a staff member or a student is not happy about something."

That, coupled with the Bill's clause that universities must report to Nzimande on a quarterly basis instead of annually as before, rendered councils, the highest governing structures in universities, redundant, Mthembu said. "Perhaps, according to the minister, we don't need councils any more. The manner in which the minister is running the show seems to suggest that."

This year the Central and Vaal universities of technology took to five the number of universities Nzimande has put under administration since he joined the Cabinet in 2009.

However, Central became the first university to challenge the minister's appointment of an administrator in a legal action, which it won in August. Nzimande has indicated he will appeal the judgment.

Sibusiso Radebe, an ANC member of the portfolio committee, said the public hearings in which the bodies made submissions served as a consultation platform and the committee integrated different views in the final Bill. "[The bodies] can't cry foul now. We followed due processes correctly," said Radebe.

Power-grabbing mission?
"I don't think the minister is on a power-grabbing mission. Who must account for public funds pumped into the universities?" he asked.

Nzimande's spokesperson, Vuyelwa Qinga, said Hesa, the CHE and "all parties directly involved" were invited to comment on the amendments "that have now become contentious".

The portfolio committee accepted concerns both bodies expressed "and amended the Bill accordingly". But "we are not aware" the CHE requested any further opportunity to advise the minister, Qinga said.

The Bill "gives no new powers" to the minister and it is not true he wants to control governance of universities, she said. Rather, "the amendment has been introduced in the main to ensure that [an] independent assessor [the minister might appoint at any university] is given the powers to do his or her job more effectively because the current measures do not provide for this".

"Institutional autonomy can never be an end in itself if you are a public institution that is subject to the national imperatives of a developmental state like ours and sustained through public funds," Qinga said.

any more. The manner in which the minister is running the show seems to suggest that."

This year the Central and Vaal universities of technology took to five the number of universities Nzimande has put under administration since he joined the Cabinet in 2009.

However, Central became the first university to challenge the minister's appointment of an administrator in a legal action, which it won in August. Nzimande has indicated he will appeal the judgment.

Sibusiso Radebe, an ANC member of the portfolio committee, said the public hearings in which the bodies made submissions served as a consultation platform and the committee integrated different views in the final Bill. "[The bodies] can't cry foul now. We followed due processes correctly," said Radebe.

"I don't think the minister is on a power-grabbing mission. Who must account for public funds pumped into the universities?" he asked.

Nzimande's spokesperson, Vuyelwa Qinga, said Hesa, the CHE and "all parties directly involved" were invited to comment on the amendments "that have now become contentious".

The portfolio committee accepted concerns both bodies expressed "and amended the Bill accordingly". But "we are not aware" the CHE requested any further opportunity to advise the minister, Qinga said.

The Bill "gives no new powers" to the minister and it is not true he wants to control governance of universities, she said. Rather, "the amendment has been introduced in the main to ensure that [an] independent assessor [the minister might appoint at any university] is given the powers to do his or her job more effectively because the current measures do not provide for this".

"Institutional autonomy can never be an end in itself if you are a public institution that is subject to the national imperatives of a developmental state like ours and sustained through public funds," Qinga said.

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Bongani Nkosi
Bongani is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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