Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

ARE ALL South African universities in systemic crisis? One would imagine so, given the recent legislative and policy actions of Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande.

In recent months, he has been responsible for three sets of regulatory interventions. The first is the Higher Education and Training Laws Amendment Act, which passed through Parliament with many of the amendments not presented to the university community for consultation. It was promulgated on December 19. The second is a set of proposed reporting regulations meant to replace the reporting regulations of universities implemented in August 2007. The third is the establishment of an "oversight committee" to study, evaluate and determine the effectiveness of transformation in universities and to suggest a reporting mechanism.

All three have onerous implications for universities, eroding their institutional autonomy and their capabilities in their core business: teaching, learning and research.

I wish to focus here only on the first of these two regulatory interventions.

The act enhances the powers of the minister to intervene in universities. These powers were already available but were subject to careful checks and balances. The minister could appoint assessors and administrators in universities where there was financial and other maladministration, or when a university council requested it.

Now, however, these checks and balances have been weakened, apparently in response to the unfavourable high court ruling in the case of the Central University of Technology versus the state, enabling the minister now to issue directives to a university council if he believes it has behaved in an unfair or discriminatory manner or against the interests of society. The minister can then appoint an administrator to replace the council should it not comply with such directives. In the case of assessors appointed by the minister, the law previously had not prescribed their powers. Now the amendments provide copious powers to assessors, transforming their investigations into a formal legal process.

The proposed new reporting requirements for universities also enhance the powers of the department by increasing the administrative burden on universities.

Until now universities were, correctly, required to develop a detailed annual report demonstrating that the institution conducts its core business consistent with its vision, mission and strategic plan; how it performs against its key performance targets; its cash flow projections of revenue and expenditure for the following year; and a register of identified and assessed risks and measures to mitigate them.

Now, however, universities are required to prepare a five-year performance plan, and to report to the department twice a year. Specifically, universities must provide an annual report on the previous year by the end of June; a mid-term report by July/August, and an annual update of its performance plan by the end of October.

Is all of this necessary?

Some universities are in serious crisis. In the past few years, six institutions had, or still have, administrators appointed. However, this situation is not the norm across all universities. Clearly, Nzimande believes otherwise and now imposes Draconian measures required at those institutions on all universities. However, the failures in the crisis-ridden institutions are not of reporting standards, but rather of managerial and governance capabilities, resulting from the appointments made at the level of the institutions’ executives and councils. The best reporting standards in the world are unlikely to change this situation while the government and the universities’ stakeholders continue to make these kinds of appointments.

But these reporting requirements and amendments are problematic in their own right too. The new reporting requirements will entail an even further expansion of the support staff at universities. This involves the diversion of scarce resources to administrative appointments when these should be made within the academic project.

Since 1994, student enrolments in universities have almost doubled without a concomitant increase in the academic staffing establishment. Instead, the administrative staffing cohort has expanded to enable universities to manage the reporting requirements imposed by an increasingly bureaucratised state concerned with administrative rather than substantive compliance.

Ironically, none of this has improved the state of governance, management or the curbing of corruption. Eighteen years later, we show poor progress in these areas. Indeed, if you look at the levels of corruption, or the number of universities in departmental stewardship, you would have to conclude that the situation is getting worse.

In this context, one would have imagined that we would look for alternative mechanisms to resolve the crisis. Instead, administratively fixated state officials are demanding even more regulations, while government departments have little capacity to manage their existing commitments, let alone attend to the new deluge of reports that must flow from these new regulatory provisions. The net effect is likely to be more administrative burden without better governance, management or academic performance outcomes.

As worrying is the erosion of the checks on the powers of the minister to intervene in universities and appoint assessors and administrators. This erosion undermines the careful balance struck between university autonomy and public accountability crafted by the constitution and the initial Higher Education Act. The minister can now, for instance, declare a university’s action or regulations — for example, its language policy, or the way it constitutes the students’ representative council — as discriminatory and demand they be changed. Should universities refuse to do so, the minister is authorised to disband the council and impose an administrator for up to two and a half years.

Not only does it give one individual enormous power over the higher education system, but it also confuses the "public" with the "state". The net effect is that universities are transformed into state-owned enterprises, subject to the control and jurisdiction of the minister and the department. This is very different from how our constitution and the original Higher Education Act envisaged the co-operative relationship between the state and universities as autonomous entities that exercise their responsibility for public accountability through substantive councils rather than paper councils, and within a framework that is regulated by law.

The erosion of university autonomy in these new legislative interventions is downright perilous. Merely cast an eye to the north of our borders to see the consequences of what happens when universities are simply subjected to the dictates of the state.

At present, few universities north of SA can be said to offer outstanding higher education. This is no fault of their academics. It is a consequence of universities becoming solely responsible to the state, and political leaders having the power to intervene at autonomous public institutions without any checks or balances.

Perhaps Nzimande should reflect on the damaging and ideologically driven corporatisation of universities under Margaret Thatcher and remember Karl Marx’s memorable phrase: history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.

Rensburg is vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg.