Opinionista Johann Redelinghuys 17 March 2014

Universities should not be state-controlled institutions

Universities should provide the opportunity for stimulated intellectual growth and be driven by knowledge, information and ideas. In addition to knowledge for its own sake, they should provide education toward careers and should be free to do research at the highest academic level. Within the civil society they serve they ought to be self-regulated.

In South Africa we have come to fall short of this ideal. While politicians keep talking up the value of good education and that it must be a national priority, standards of university leadership appear to have dropped and so has the quality of many of their graduates.

Since 1994 there has been a gradual erosion of the independence of universities. What used to be viewed as a model of collaborative governance, university councils have now developed into hard-edged mechanisms of government control. The state is a significant funder of universities and it is right that it has an important voice in the governance of the institution just as a major shareholder would have in a private sector company. But government influence has become increasingly heavy-handed. The values of academic freedom and independence are at serious risk.

From the time of the Higher Education Act of 1997 there has been dramatic growth in the numbers of university students. They have just about doubled, and like all growth spurts there have been some destabilising consequences. With singular exceptions universities are straining under the stress of growing too fast and not having the resources to enable them to achieve a measured increase in capacity. Poor management and lack of proper fiduciary controls have resulted in the minister having to appoint assessors and contract administrators to try and turn matters around. It’s not surprising that this has led to increasing state control

The department of higher Education and the universities must be congratulated for achieving very impressive growth over the past twenty years. In addition to the numbers there have been great strides in transformation. But this has come at a cost. Vice Chancellors and the senior university leadership are forever being threatened with the cutting of their funding unless ambitious transformation and other goals are achieved. In the process university authorities have lost much of their independence and standards have been eroded. Universities are now de facto government institutions.

It’s unfortunate that to date government has not had a sparkling track record in its leadership of organisations. Within the broader economy and in business government interference and control in state owned enterprises has caused considerable difficulty. Large and important strategic businesses like Eskom are now being touted as candidates for privatisation because its government directed leadership has failed so miserably.

In most SOEs board members have complained that government appointed directors have not had sufficient business experience to make a meaningful contribution to the work of the board; the quality of governance and board leadership has suffered. Disillusioned board members who do have the experience leave rather than allow themselves to be sucked into the inevitable governance compromises.

The councils of universities are heading in the same direction. Reports from independent advisors indicate that university council meetings are poorly chaired and that members often do not have the skills to understand their roles or how the council ought to be managed. There are now initiatives to increase the skills of council members and to facilitate a better performance. Results so far are not encouraging.

The government’s reaction to dysfunctional performance has been to increase its control but at the same time to keep the people who have caused the problems in the first place. One might have expected that board members appointed out of government ranks would lack the necessary skills to contribute to a university council. They are, after all civil servants and not as such best qualified for the governance roles similar to listed company non-executive directors

But there is a path out of poorly resourced university councils and it is a significant opportunity for public/private collaboration that is already used by some. In many of the world’s great academic institutions, highly regarded alumnae from the private sector are invited to join university councils. Independent non-executive directors with deep private sector board experience are also drawn in to such appointments. Retiring partners from professional firms of auditors, lawyers, engineers and others are significant resource pools. They should of course be paid for their services and whilst not as much as in the private sector it should be meaningful. Having to take on a governance job on a pro-bono basis, inevitably leads to it being relegated to the bottom of the awareness pile.

The fact that the deterioration at universities is not a uniquely South African problem is interesting but does not make matters better. Geoffrey Alderman writing in the UK Guardian and decrying government intervention writes: “Government-imposed targets designed to increase the number of students from deprived backgrounds risk being met only by lowering the academic standards of the institutions that meet them”

Senior academic leaders in universities would be pleased if government’s role would be one of non-executive oversight, and not one of direct management by means of rigged councils. Using universities to meet the political aspirations of a regime smacks of totalitarianism and robs them of their vital independence. DM

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