THE Department of Higher Education and Training has dismissed concerns that the contentious draft Higher Education Amendment Bill gives the government unrestricted powers over tertiary institutions.
The bill was introduced in Parliament at the weekend, prompting fears in the higher education sector that the new amendments would put the autonomy of universities at risk.
It is feared that the bill will, if passed into law, give the minister draconian powers to intervene in universities’ affairs.
The bill proposes the minister have the power to determine transformation objectives and put appropriate mechanisms in place to ensure the objectives are met. It allows the minister to change processes, procedures and mandates of universities and other higher education institutions. It also empowers the minister to withhold funding under specific circumstances.
“Contrary to (the fears), the powers of the governing structures, specifically the councils and the senate remain unchanged. These legislative arrangements will however provide the minister with a mechanism to ensure momentum and progress with regard to critical transformational matters,” said Khaye Nkwanyana, the spokesman for the Department of Higher Education on Tuesday.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) has called on Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande to withdraw the bill. The party argues that oversight of university councils should be vested in semi-autonomous bodies such as the Council on Higher Education and should not be in the hands of the state.
Belinda Bozzoli, the DA’s higher education and training spokeswoman, said on Sunday the bill presented a “series of extremely worrying proposals”.
“In the case of institutional breakdown, the minister’s powers to appoint administrators and assessors and to dissolve councils have been broadened to include such criteria as reasonable grounds, rather than the existing objective legal threshold for this action, and he would have the discretion to take any other appropriate action should he see fit to do so — again boosting his powers,” said Prof Bozzoli, adding that the bill was rushed through Parliament without sufficient consultation.
But in a four-page statement released on Tuesday, Mr Nkwanyana said: “it is clear that Professor Bozzoli has not had the chance to properly engage with the proposed revisions to the bill and is ignorant of the facts about the process that have led to the revision of the bill”.
“This revision was undertaken through a deep, reflective and consultative process, involving the university sector and other key stakeholders,” Mr Nkwanyana said.
He explained that the revision of the bill was necessary to deal with a number of developments and changes in the higher education landscape, the two most important being the publication of the White Paper on Post-School Education and Training published in October 2013, and the Higher Education Amendment Laws of 2012.
Key stakeholders felt that the 2012 amendment to the act was not properly consulted, the wording was clumsy and gave the minister too much power over universities and national institutes of higher education, and was not consistent with the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act of 2000.
Mr Nkwanyana said in 2013, the minister 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 from the department, Higher Education South Africa (now Universities SA), University Council Chairs Forum SA and Council on Higher Education was established to revise and improve the bill, taking into consideration the principles of academic freedom, institutional autonomy, public accountability and the prescripts of the Administrative Justice Act.
“This revised bill is intended to strike a better balance between institutional autonomy and public accountability, deal with the outdated aspects and create coherence. It provides greater clarity about the mechanisms available for the minister to intervene, as already prescribed in the act,” said Mr Nkwanyana.
He added that the bill was clear that transformation goals must be determined in the interest of the higher education system as a whole, and in terms of the policy on higher education, after consulting with the Council on Higher Education.
Themba Mosia, the chairman of the Council on Higher Education, told BDlive on Tuesday that the bill had been consulted adequately among the higher education stakeholder community, and concerns were raised and addressed, but it was not possible to obtain a 100% consensus.
“We do not read the (bill) to be removing the governance and oversight role of university councils. What the bill seeks to achieve is that whereas universities continue with their core business, including governance arrangements, they should do so not as independent entities that may not account for certain aspects of their business, (such as) the transformation agenda, good governance practices, reporting requirements, including audits of their affairs,” said Prof Mosia.
“If this bill is applied in the spirit of enhancing transformation in universities and striking a balance in such a way that institutions are not given reasonable space to deliver on their mandates, then we will not improve the system but create further problems. The view of the council is that the bill will improve the system by bringing about more accountability for the public resources that are provided to the universities on the one hand, enable universities to teach and research as guaranteed by the constitution of the Republic of South Africa on the other,” he said.