THREAT: Universities, which recently were a hotbed of protests against fee hikes, now also fear the controversial draft Higher Education Amendment Bill will compromise their autonomy, giving the higher education minister powers to intervene in their affairs . Picture: THE TIMES
THREAT: Universities, which recently were a hotbed of protests against fee hikes, now also fear the controversial draft Higher Education Amendment Bill will compromise their autonomy, giving the higher education minister powers to intervene in their affairs . Picture: THE TIMES

PROPOSED changes to laws governing tertiary institutions would not necessarily erode the autonomy of universities if passed into law, the Council on Higher Education said on Monday.

The controversial draft Higher Education Amendment Bill was sneaked into Parliament at the weekend, prompting fears in the higher education sector that the new amendments would put the autonomy of universities at risk.

But the Council on Higher Education, an independent statutory body responsible for advising government on all higher education policy issues, said yesterday the bill sought to make institutions of higher learning more accountable.

Fears are that the bill will, if passed into law, give the minister draconian powers to intervene in universities’ affairs.

Although previous legislation granted the minister power to intervene at universities, these powers were subject to strict checks and balances.

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.

"To put in place mechanisms or structures that require universities to account is not necessarily eroding the autonomy of institutions.… It is clear that having left universities to their own devices has not resulted in much progress (in terms of) transformation. There has to be some mechanism to bring transformation at systematic level … (but) this is a matter of public debate and we will certainly participate in that debate," Council on Higher Education CE Narend Baijnath said.

Mr Nzimande has been vocal on the issue of institutional autonomy, saying that universities have abused their autonomy to delay transformation.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) has called on Mr Nzimande to withdraw the bill. The party argues that oversight of university councils should vest in semi-autonomous bodies such as the Council on Higher Education and not in the hands of the state.

On Monday, the department indicated that it would push hard for the bill to become law.

Department spokesman Khaye Nkwanyana said the bill sought to articulate "strongly the public accountability of our universities as public institutions within the confines of institutional autonomy".

"In the current form, institutional autonomy is sometimes used as a fig leaf to frustrate transformation," he said.

"The bill should clarify that in cases where institutions are not showing progress, (it) then becomes the role of government to foster transformation and other related progressive matters. Ultimately, it cannot be left to the mere goodwill of those who are leaders of our universities with no enforcement mechanisms where there is resistance," said Mr Nkwanyana.

Belinda Bozzoli, the DA’s higher education and training spokeswoman, said 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.