We need to give the Higher Education Amendment Bill a chance

The Higher Education Amendment Bill will give Blade Nzimande the power to determine transformation objectives and put mechanisms in place to ensure those objectives are met. (Madelene Cronjé)

The Higher Education Amendment Bill will give Blade Nzimande the power to determine transformation objectives and put mechanisms in place to ensure those objectives are met. (Madelene Cronjé)


There has been a whole lot of negative talk in the print and broadcast media regarding the Higher Education Amendment Bill. This has much to do with speculation that the Bill seeks to increase the powers of the minister of higher education and training, Blade Nzimande, to intervene in university matters and to undermine institutional autonomy, and that he is attempting to rush the Bill through Parliament.

As Professor Chris de Beer of the Council on Higher Education has written: “The revision of the Higher Education Act 1997, as amended, is intended to improve the system based on the collective experience of implementing the Higher Education Act since 1997. It strives inter alia to provide essential legislative platforms with a view to giving effect to and aligning the provision of higher education with government priorities and programmes, as articulated in the National Development Plan and the white paper for post-school education and training.”

The department of higher education and training’s 2013 white paper affirms the principles of ­academic freedom, institutional autonomy and public accountability as described in the department’s white paper number three of 1997.

The white paper says that principles may at times be in conflict with one another, but it is worth noting (and reaffirming) the white paper’s unequivocal statement that “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 autonomy.”

For various reasons policies will continue to change, particularly when the environment or context in which operations (policies) are made are no longer relevant or no longer add any value to the changes they were intended to produce.

In October 2014, as an employee of the department of higher education and training, I attended a student leadership workshop that was hosted by the University of Fort Hare in East London.

This was at a time when the South African higher education sector was rattled by a wave of student protests, forcing some institutions to suspend their classes or close their campuses in the first half of 2014.

The department saw a need, as it always does in addressing challenges, to conduct student leadership workshops at all universities in the country. During the protests in the first half of 2014, the South African Students’ Congress (Sasco) had issued a statement that spoke to the frustrations of students across the higher education sector, which then provided the department with an understanding of what needed to be among the key topics to be discussed at these workshops.

At the Fort Hare workshop, Tebogo Thothela, deputy president of the South African Union of Students, beautifully outlined the challenges faced by students in the higher ­education sector.

“In attempting to solve these challenges and create lasting solutions, we must perhaps consider [how] the scholar Nancy Fraser ... defines and differentiates between affirmative and transformative change,” she said. “Affirmative change, she argues, is an attempt to deal with past or current societal imbalances without necessarily dealing with the structural cause of those imbalances, while transformative change deals with redressing past and current societal imbalances precisely by dealing with changing the very structures which reproduce the inequality.”

Excellent quote, I thought. Why can’t it, therefore, be necessary, in this regard, to further develop policy on universities in order to tackle current challenges and to elaborate on the role and function of universities within an integrated post-school system as called for in the department’s 2013 white paper?

The proposed changes to laws governing tertiary institutions should not be seen as a blank cheque to give the minister unrestricted powers. In fact, the Bill requires the minister to do much more before acting.

It proposes to give the minister the power to determine transformation objectives and put mechanisms in place to ensure the objectives are met. It allows the minister to change the processes, procedures and mandates of universities and other higher education institutions.

All this is proposed in order to arrest the challenges that make it difficult to provide quality and equal higher education to youths in a democratic South Africa.

The amendment Bill provides greater clarity regarding instances that would justify interventions by the minister, the mechanisms available, the ideal order in which they should be applied and the procedure to be followed. A more progressive approach by the minister is ­therefore proposed. The amendments allow the minister to act much earlier by way of a directive to prevent serious interventions at a later stage and provide a range of options instead of the current arrangement whereby the ­minister is obliged to appoint an administrator should the minister wish to pursue matters further.

The challenges addressed by Thothela and Sasco in their statements have been in existence for a long time and the department of higher education and training has been monitoring these.

As Minister Nzimande would figuratively say in juxtaposing the higher education system with the challenges it faces today: “We are fixing an aeroplane in the air.” This is indeed a fair reflection of what is really happening in the sector.

The department of higher education and training is a fairly new department. The phrase “fairly new” is not used as an excuse; it is a fact.

In the short space of time that the department has been in existence, it has achieved a lot, all because of the commitment and hard work of those leading and working for this department as they strive to make sure that no youth in this country is left stranded in the streets with no purpose in life. These are the people who live the mission and vision of the department.

Any negative talk regarding the Higher Education Amendment Bill is an attempt to try to divert the work and successes of this department instead of supporting, encouraging and working together with it.

Because one is in opposition, it does not necessarily mean, therefore, that all that is good must also be opposed because one is obliged to speak from an opposition standpoint.

We need to give this Bill a chance. A thorough consultation has been done by the minister. In 2013 he consulted with university vice- chancellors and council chairs on their concerns and agreed on a process for reviewing the Act.

A task team, including members of the department, Higher Education South Africa (now Universities South Africa), the University Council Chairs Forum of South Africa and the Council of Higher Education, was established to revise the Bill, taking into account the principles of academic freedom, institutional autonomy, public accountability and the prescripts regarding fair administrative procedures and the provision of access to information.

This process has been highly ­consultative and inclusive, and is testament to the principle of co-operative governance between institutions and the state.

This is the first week of public hearings in Cape Town to debate the Higher Education Amendment Bill.

By taking part in the process, stakeholders will be striving to advance a better education and a better life for all those in our higher education system and also those in need of education and employment because of the blockages we find in the skills and education sector.

We all need to rally behind this Bill as it will contribute immensely in trying to unblock the blockages in the higher education sector.

William Lebohang Somo writes in his capacity as an employee of the media and communication division of the department of higher education and training.

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