Institutional Autonomy and Academic Freedom: briefing by Council for Higher Education

Basic Education

22 May 2006
Chairperson: Mr S Mayatula (ANC)
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Meeting report

EDUCATION PORTFOLIO COMMITTEE; SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY PORTFOLIO COMMITTEE: JOINT MEETINGEDUCATION PORTFOLIO COMMITTEE AND SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY PORTFOLIO COMMITTEE: JOINT MEETING 23 May 2006 INSTITUTIONAL AUTONOMY AND ACADEMIC FREEDOM: BRIEFING BY COUNCIL FOR HIGHER EDUCATION Chairperson: Mr S Mayatula (ANC) Documents handed out: South African Government Involvement in and Regulation of, Higher Education, Institutional Autonomy and Academic Freedom: HEIAAF Task Team Terms of Reference SUMMARY The Council for Higher Education gave the Committee an overview of the terms of reference of the task team on Higher Education Institutional Autonomy and Academic Freedom and its time lines. The task team report would be finalised in 2007. The meeting consisted of a seminar-style exploration by Members of the concepts of state, institutional autonomy, freedom and the different priorities accorded to freedom and autonomy in the context of the need for public accountability, the market, skills needs and transformation. MINUTES Council for Higher Education presentation Prof S Badat, CEO of the Council on Higher Education (CHE) presented an overview of the terms of reference of the Higher Education Institutional Autonomy and Academic Freedom (HEIAAF) Task Team and outlined key elements in the HEIAAF initiative. Prof Badat is the convenor of the team, which comprises Dr K Mokhele of the National Research Foundation (NRF), Justice D Davis, Ms J February (Institute for Democratic Alternatives in South Africa), Mr S Friedman of the Centre for Policy Studies, Prof Njabulo Ndebele, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, Prof E Sall of CODESRIA (Council for the Development of Economic and Social Research in Africa), Dr Mala Singh of the Higher Education Quality Committee and Dr F Ginwala, former Speaker of Parliament. The investigation's purpose is to stimulate debate, build a shared understanding and produce a report on: - The appropriate nature and modes of government involvement in Higher Education (HE) transformation - The appropriate relationship between government, bodies with HE regulatory functions and HEIs - The appropriate conceptions of institutional autonomy (IA), academic freedom (AF) and public accountability (PA) both generally and in the context of South African HE transformation. As transformation has shifted from policy to implementation, concerns and claims that government involvement has shifted from steering to interfering have arisen. These issues have potential to become sources of conflict and the situation requires exploration of stakeholders’ conceptions of IA, AF, PA and the relationships between them. The main foci of the task team are to analyse claims of government interference and respond to them, to develop a conceptual framework that is normative and qualified in light of mediating factors such as evolution over time, neo-liberalism, the market, and regional and African goals and accords and to advance arguments and conclusions. >From 2005 to 2007, the task team would conduct an overview of recent debates, receive and analyse stakeholder submissions, commission research and convene regional fora. This should culminate in a research report and a policy and/or research report to the Minister. Research into the following areas would be commissioned: -Evaluation of co-operative governance matching empirical perspectives with constitutional and public policy perspectives -Interrogation of the practice of AF in SA and Africa and its implications for wider practice -Exploration of the potential of social pacts for IA -Theoretical and empirical dimensions of PA in SA HE and -Cross-cutting theoretical analysis deriving a principled framework for the state-sector relationship. Discussion Ms F Mohamed (ANC) asked for examples of claims that government involvement had become interference, more details on research projects and how the task team findings would relate to the skills shortage. Prof Badat said that the claims were not unique to education but were part of the SA landscape. An Education White Paper was the product of democratic consensus but it was not always perceived as such. When policy was implemented, differences in perception sometimes became more apparent. For instance, an HEI might claim that it had increased its enrolment of black students but this might be through increasing enrolment in distance education only. Priorities also differed and could be contested as bitterly as the merging of institutions had been. Another example was the Department of Education determining the mix of programmes and qualifications at HEIs and some institutions being disallowed from offering certain qualifications, which had also led to allegations of too much government interference. The selection of five areas of research had been decided by financial constraints and had emerged from an overview of documents. Research teams had full autonomy to gather data and present their findings. Mr R van den Heever (ANC) said the rationale of the task team assumed a co-operative governance model, one of state supervision, not control. What checks and balances were there? What ideas and processes would guide dispute resolution? What should government do in a funding crisis and lack of transformation scenario? Mr S Dithebe (ANC) said that the debate sounded very similar to the one regarding separation of powers. If analysis dictated state intervention in a particular case, would HEIs interpret that as control? Mr B Mthembu (ANC) said how issues were conceptualised was central, for instance the conception of state (developmental, democratic). Would the state be intervening or interfering if it was for the general good? Prof Badat agreed that there was a link between the issues raised and co-operative governance. Some were of the opinion that all matters should be co-determined, for instance what programmes HEIs offered. Some agreed and some disagreed that the Department should determine what programmes were offered. The HE Act provided for an administrator to be sent to an institution, which was ‘tottering’, and some said that this was a violation of institutional autonomy. If a Council resigned and the institution was "burning", should the Minister sit back? Prof Badat agreed that the concept of state was important. It was accepted that the state had a role to play but the question was what and how. One person might consider employment equity requirements an example of social justice while another might consider it interference. The Chair asked what had triggered the debate. Mr A Gaum (ANC) asked if there were key indicators of institutional autonomy in international best practice. Ms J Matsomela (ANC) asked which stakeholders had raised concerns and what criteria had been used to select institutions for the regional fora. Mr R Ntuli (ANC) said that tensions between the state and universities were ancient and asked whether the research would show how to manage tension. Mr G Boinamo (DA) said that universities were sites of learning and if they wanted to train teachers but government said they should produce scientists, was that not a violation of institutional autonomy? Or if a rector was appointed and government officials lobbied for a different official to be appointed, was that also not a similar violation? Prof Badat answered that international comparisons were part of the research. An example of a violation of academic freedom would be telling a sociology academic what he or she should teach. Many academics said that university managers were violating academic freedom. Universities had to raise funds by researching for companies. The companies might require the findings not to be shared for 10 years. Another example of a violation of academic freedom would be if a vice-Chancellor said an academic could research the land question but not affirmative action. University Councils appointed vice-Chancellors. If the Minister dictated to Council who it should appoint, that would violate institutional autonomy, although there were countries where the Minister appointed vice-Chancellors but the universities had academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Traditions and contexts differed. In South Africa, some academics thought that a year-long sabbatical every six years was an inviolable right (but it was not). We should interrogate perceived notions of autonomy and freedom. Prof Badat said, to be provocative, some submissions to the task team said there was not enough public accountability and institutional autonomy was being exploited. If the Minister were to cap vice-Chancellors’ salaries, would that be a violation of institutional autonomy? He himself did not know. If the Minister capped fees, what would that be? Just because the public was happy did not mean that there was no violation of institutional autonomy. Regarding the regional fora, Ms Matsomela had misunderstood – the seven regional fora would include all HEIs from that region. Prof Badat agreed that the state and universities had been in tension since the 13th century. Ten years ago, 80-80% of university budgets came from the state, now it was sometimes only 40%. Contract research, for example in pharmaceuticals or engineering, was an important source of income but it should be managed so as not to undermine academic freedom. Mr Gaum commented that there were interesting parallels with other institutions in South Africa, for example the judiciary. Judges’ salaries, for example were set by an independent body. Prof Badat agreed. No HEI objected to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) being given R50 million for engineering students. It all boiled down to how one defined academic freedom. Incidentally, there was space on the task team for an individual to defend absolute autonomy, if they could do so on rigorous grounds. Ms L Maloney (ANC) asked whether donor funding conditions could also compromise freedom. Prof Badat clarified his earlier ratios of state funding: in the past, the state funded 70-95% of HEIs costs. Current state funding levels were 40-70%. If the state said that R50m was available to research the land question only and the Carnegie Fund made R20m available for specific research, why was the one a violation and the other not? A rational and rigorous discussion was needed. Ms Mohamed said that if there were such a thing as relative autonomy, what would absolute autonomy be? Mr E Ngcobo (ANC)[The Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee] said that the National Research Foundation reported to his Committee that Finland provided a good example of how to develop research capacity, by providing research funding without any conditions attached. He asked for Prof Badat’s comment. Prof Badat said that absolute autonomy was a theoretical construct which did not exist. South Africa had used part of the Finnish model in the old HEI funding formula when 10-12% of funding had been ‘blind’. Some universities had undertaken a lot of research with that funding and some had done none. The Finnish model did not necessarily apply in South Africa. The Constitution referred to academic freedom only, not institutional autonomy. At the time it was drawn up, some had advocated the inclusion of the latter. Mr A Mpontshane (IFP) said that the difference between donors or philanthropists and the state dictating what funding should be used for was that the state used taxpayers’ money. Prof Badat countered by asking: if the state barred a university from offering a qualification funded by a donor because the donor would only fund the qualification for two or three years and the same qualification was offered at another institution 15km away, was the state really overstepping the mark? The meeting was adjourned.

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