Edition 179 - March 2016

South Africa - Amendments to university autonomy, towards transformation?

Developments on Higher Education Amendment Bill (HEAB), on which public hearings have been concluded 17 February 2016, have spurred animated discussions within the community of higher education stakeholders in South Africa. The portfolio Committee on Higher Education and Training received input from various stakeholders including Universities South Africa, student and labour bodies, civil society and The Independent Institute of Education.

The dissatisfaction with rising tuition fees, exorbitant costs of higher education for the average citizen, racial injustice and economic inequalities have ignited a national movement for transforming South Africa’s universities and widening access, towards inclusion of historically disadvantaged groups. Calls for government to intervene in universities’ transformation agendas, backed by student bodies and The Higher Education Transformation Network, paired with a national uprising and general concerns with the slow pace of change in institutional culture and curricula, had marked the submission of a draft of the bill back in November last year.

The topics on which stakeholders raised concerns in the recent hearing centred around issues of institutional independence, accountability, ministerial directives, transformation goals and fraudulent qualificationsThe Portfolio committee clarified that public hearings were to provide various perspectives and that amendments were intended to assist the higher education sector where it had missed to self-correct, balancing accountability with autonomy, and thus it was important to include ministerial powers. Respectfully, reactions of stakeholders were mixed. Universities of South Africa voiced their concern over erosion of institutional autonomy rather linking challenges at universities to systemic constraints, fearing the bill to cripple institutions’ investments in intellectual property and research. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and The Higher Education Transformation Network welcomed the bill for its capacities to regulate study fees and bridge inequalities, also relating to gender. Further issues concerned strengthening the Higher Education Council and the fact that the student populations reflected demographics on the contrary to faculty which had not transformed. Committee member Sipho Mbatha pointed out how universities did not understand the concerns of the poor and working class, which necessitated the changes in legislation.

The HEAB, having received significant input of various stakeholders, has now gained momentum, surfacing a dilemma of institutional autonomy and its clause for ministerial powers to ‘set transformative goals’, where urgency to formulate concrete impacts for South African university transformation is determined by prevailing public unrest.

South African government- press release
Minutes of meeting HEAB
HEAB full document

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