South Africa

Op-Ed: Government oversight of university transformation should not be taboo

By Vito Laterza 19 November 2015

The expansion of higher education in the early postcolonial period was not driven by a free market ideology. States took pride in showcasing university education as a marker of national development. By VITO LATERZA.

Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande has recently submitted the Higher Education Amendment Bill to parliament. If voted into law, the bill is likely to have a major impact on the South African higher education landscape.

The proposed legislation covers a number of areas, including post-school education and training, the possibility for universities to invest their funds in financial institutions, and rules to deal with educational qualifications acquired fraudulently. The aspects that have attracted most attention so far have to do with the Minister’s increased powers to set transformation goals, and establish appropriate oversight mechanisms. Provisions are introduced for ministerial intervention when universities do not comply. They include the withdrawal of public funds when stipulated conditions are not met, and clarifications over the Minister’s power to put public universities into administration, in serious cases of institutional malfunctioning. The Minister can also convert sections of existing universities into separate institutions, and limit or expand their scope and function.

While the ongoing student unrest is still the primary focus of current debates, some academics have already criticised the bill as an attack on institutional autonomy and academic freedom. Democratic Alliance (DA) Shadow Minister of Higher Education and Training, Belinda Bozzoli, has released a vitriolic statement calling for the immediate withdrawal of the bill. According to her, it “is yet another step in the Minister’s continued campaign of creeping state capture of higher education institutions”. The DA contests the principle of government intervention in transformation policy and oversight over its application.

The failure to transform

Transformation, or rather its slow pace, remains a major unresolved issue that casts a long shadow over efforts to increase access to higher education and overcome the legacy of apartheid. Historically white universities – the most powerful players in the sector – have not successfully transformed. Academic staff in these institutions are not representative of overall society. Black South Africans and people from other historically disadvantaged groups are in the minority. Eurocentric curricula do not address the concerns of the wider society. Student intake shows important gains, but historically disadvantaged groups are still underrepresented. Black students continue to suffer institutional discrimination and various forms of overt and covert racism.

As a result of the student protests, a consensus is emerging around the facts. Many academics and university managers in historically white universities have acknowledged the need to act quickly. What is the bone of contention then? Why did the main opposition party dismiss the bill before a draft was made available to the public?

It is unclear why universities that have failed to make significant advances on transformation should be left to their own devices. While the terms of debate are undoubtedly shifting, the protests have also shown that university managers, academics and students are struggling to come together in a structured and effective dialogue with tangible policy outcomes. There are no guarantees that such processes will indeed successfully take place without external intervention.

The DA claims that independent bodies like the Council on Higher Education (CHE) are more appropriate to the task of oversight of transformation measures. The CHE’s advisory role in higher education policy is preserved in the draft amendments. There is nothing to suggest that the CHE will not play a role. The Council’s CEO, Narend Baijnath, publicly supported the bill.

Arguments about institutional autonomy have been sometimes used to avoid top-down intervention by a government that is often prejudicially criticised, regardless of the actions it takes. Even when prejudice is not a factor, such calls ignore the fact that civil society does not have the internal strength to change the unequal structures of race and class that work against the black majority.

Of course state intervention means that institutional autonomy is to some extent curtailed. But such tensions are already present in the current legislation. The proposed bill clarifies some of the grey areas and the scope of the Minister’s powers. Given the large proportion of state funds that universities receive, it is hard to think why a discussion about the merits of government oversight should be taboo.

African comparisons

In a recent piece, Nimi Hoffmann, Sioux McKenna and Temwa Moyo argue against government encroachment on public universities. They mention the experience of the 1980s and 1990s in the rest of the continent which saw institutional autonomy and academic freedom severely curbed by African governments. One important detail is left out. That project was directly tied to restructuring of higher education. Increased government intervention was part of a free market agenda driven by the World Bank and the IMF. A more appropriate comparison should be made with the massive growth of state-funded higher education across the continent in the 1960s and 1970s. It is one of the success stories of African liberation governments. The university population multiplied exponentially and graduates filled the top ranks of government and the economy. Even when the crisis caused by structural adjustment programmes hit, the foundations laid out in those years allowed many Africans to succeed abroad. As Mahmood Mamdani points out, the expansion of higher education in the early postcolonial period was not driven by a free market ideology. States took pride in showcasing university education as a marker of national development.

This does not mean that academics could not express dissenting views. It is also true that the state did at times engage in open confrontation with universities. If the excesses of postcolonial national ideologies became the centre of debate in other African contexts, the lack of transformation in the wealthiest universities in South Africa has inhibited opportunities for similar conversations.

State intervention and democratic participation

It is now commonplace in social science classes across South Africa to hear lecturers say that “neoliberalism” is bad for society. The label is frequently used as a short-hand for the current dispensation: an unequal social and economic system, where the state is co-opted by big capital and the upper-middle classes, and cannot successfully address the needs and aspirations of the excluded majority.

After the 0% increase on next year’s university fees announced by President Zuma at the end of October, Nzimande’s draft legislation is another important step away from the powerful interests that captured the post-apartheid state. This is, after all, what increasing calls for free higher education imply: a reversal of the relationship between state and capital that has turned university education into a commodity, rather than a universal right and a tool of empowerment.

Top-down government intervention is not a panacea for all ills. There is a need for strong participation by the various higher education constituencies and other sectors of civil society. They should be involved in the process to provide essential checks and balances to state power. Parliamentary debate and wider societal engagement can only improve the efficacy and success of the measures proposed. The hope is that university managers, academics and students in historically white universities will take the opportunity to engage with the bill, and accept the principle of government oversight of transformation policies. This is a necessary, but not sufficient step to address past injustices and present inequalities in South African higher education. DM

Vito Laterza is a research fellow at the Centre for African Studies, University of Cape Town. He has contributed to Foreign Affairs and Al Jazeera English and edits the Human Economy Blog. He tweets at @vitolaterza09.

Photo: Students from the University of Cape Town (UCT) protest in Rondebosch, Cape Town, South Africa 20 October 2015. EPA/NIC BOTHMA.

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