Democratic Alliance. Picture: BLOOMBERG/ MIKE COHEN
Democratic Alliance. Picture: BLOOMBERG/ MIKE COHEN

THE controversial draft Higher Education Amendment Bill, only seeks to facilitate state "capture" of universities, while the sector is on the verge of economic collapse, South Africa’s Democratic Alliance (DA) says.

"Ever since universities came under the centralised authority of the Higher Education Act of 1997, the ANC-led government has bombarded them with dozens of small and large amendments of law and regulation in an attempt to bring them under its control," DA higher education and training spokesperson Belinda Bozzoli said on Thursday.

"These amendments have gradually undermined university autonomy and, with it, threatened academic freedom as government increasingly positions itself as the ultimate gatekeeper of academic thought."

The DA has vehemently opposed the bill, saying it will give Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande additional powers to dictate to universities.

The bill proposes to give the minister the power to determine transformation objectives and put 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.

Professor Bozzoli said several clauses in the bill were framed in such a way so as to reduce the susceptibility of the minister’s decisions to oversight by the courts.

She said some of the problematic clauses included:

• Elevating the standing of university forums, and the extension of ministerial powers over areas currently the responsibilities of councils.

• The introduction of nebulous and vaguely described "transformation goals" and "oversight mechanisms".

• The introduction of ministerial control over transformation goals in private universities and colleges.

• The introduction of a slew of broad and poorly defined new powers for the minister following the failure of a university and the appointment of an administrator.

"Government has promulgated endless controlling regulations and repeatedly amended and extended them, over the past 20 years; it has openly used funding mechanisms to manipulate university decisions; it has overtly and covertly applied its considerable influence over councils’ choices of vice-chancellors; and it has manipulated student protests to secure outcomes in its interests without addressing the core issues with which students are concerned," Professor Bozzoli said.

Academic freedom and institutional autonomy were cornerstones of academic pursuit across the world.

"Unsurprisingly, like authoritarian governments everywhere, the ANC-led government has found the principles of independent thought and robust self-management to be anathema. Indeed both the minister and the president have made it clear that they would prefer ‘patriotic’ universities to independent ones.

"The DA will do all it can to ensure that these worrying new provisions of the bill are properly examined, that the minister’s hunger for power is kept in check and that the financial crisis which confronts the sector is kept front and centre," Professor Bozzoli said.

The Department of Higher Education and Training on Wednesday briefed MPs on the bill. It told them that the bill would assist with the functioning of university councils and make the institutions more accountable.

The bill sought to articulate "strongly the public accountability of our universities as public institutions within the confines of institutional autonomy", the department said. It said in the current form, institutional autonomy was sometimes used as a fig leaf to frustrate transformation.

Higher education and training parliamentary portfolio committee chairwoman Yvonne Phosa said the bill would be open for public comment in the coming weeks. Calls for written and oral submissions would be advertised.