Higher education: The threat to autonomy grows

The Green Paper has all the centralising and interventionist tendencies that were present in earlier recommendations.

Following the publication of the final report of the National Commission on Higher Education (NCHE] in December, 1996 [see Focus Letter 5], the Green Paper on Higher Education is now out. Essentially it means more of the same.

The Green Paper adopts the model of co-operative governance and the buzzwords of 'co-responsibility with multiple interest groups, interdependence, participation, shared accountability and responsibility' form the golden thread that links this latest policy document published by the Department of Education to its predecessors.

The Green Paper claims that the Ministry will be limited to a 'steering and co-ordinating role' in shaping higher education policy, but the modified proposals still contain all the centralising and interventionist tendencies that were present in earlier NCHE recommendations. Clearly, only lip-service is being paid to genuine diversity and institutional autonomy. Instead of allowing market forces to diversify higher education by allowing institutions themselves to sell what they are good at and therefore determine their own niche markets, the heavy hand of government control and interference remains.

Academic freedom and institutional autonomy continue to be linked to and curtailed by new funding proposals, which means that institutions will have to shape their programmes to meet national educational equity goals set out by government. In future, failure to produce comprehensive three year strategic plans, supported by key performance indicators, as evidence of an institution's intent to meet national goals (including equity goals), will deprive them of funding.

Institutional autonomy is further curtailed by the fact that all university curricula will have to be approved by the South African Qualifications Authority [SAQA]. SAQA in turn will be. responsible for the development of the National Qualifications Authority [NQF] which aims to provide a single framework for the whole of higher education.

Second, the Higher Education Quality Council [HEQC] is to be set up as an independent body to ensure 'accountability and value for money' in the higher education sector. Internal peer review of all institutions will no longer be the sole mechanism to maintain quality and performance. Evaluation of the performance of an institution will be undertaken at national level and the function of the HEQC will be to undertake institutional audits monitoring performance within institutions.

The Ministry will also have the power to make an independent assessment of any institution whenever it deems it necessary. In such a case - perhaps occasioned by campus unrest or by suspected mismanagement or corruption - the Minister will have power to appoint assessors responsible only to him to probe the situation at any institution he chooses. The assessors will be powerful inquisitors with the ability to command whatever information they require - and they will report only to the Minister.

It may well be that the special commission of inquiry currently charged with reporting on the troubled University of Durban-Westville has served as a model for this proposal [see Helen Suzman Foundation, KwaZulu-Natal Briefing No 4 for the story of the UDW saga]. It certainly gives the Minister power of intervention greater than even his heavy-handed National Party predecessors thought it proper to take - and in the often timorous world of academe the very existence of such powers of intervention will have a pre-emptive effect.

The Council on Higher Education

A single new advisory body, the Council on Higher Education [CHE] is proposed by the Green Paper, thus amalgamating the two recommended advisory bodies into one.

The CHE is to be supported by a small secretariat and will provide 'independent, strategic advice' to the Minister. However, the Minister will set out the budgetary and policy parameters within which the Graduation joy. But as universities are weakened, what will their degrees be worth?

Council must operate and the council will act only at the discretion of the Minister when formal advice on specific issues is needed [something of the flavour of the CHE's functions is conveyed in its duty to 'devise strategies to overcome barriers to transformation'].

Moreover, the Minister will have the final say over all appointments to the CHE [there will be 19 members representing all 'stakeholders']. The Minister also assumes ultimate responsibility for all decisions taken on higher education transformation and as such will control the activities of the CHE -fatally compromising its promised independence.

In the unlikely event that he should not approve of any recommendations proposed by the council, the Minister can override its advice.

The Branch of Higher Education

The Green Paper accepts the NCHE's recommendation that the Ministry's new Branch of Higher Education should be strengthened both in terms of its areas of responsibility and in its

personnel. Its consolidated functions appear to be an amalgamation of the functions originally assigned to a variety of other bureaucracies. The branch will become the financial nerve-centre of the higher education system, overseeing the allocation of resources to institutions, including redress funds and the establishment of the financial aid scheme for disadvantaged students, as well as the development of a performance indicator system.

Finally, the Ministry recommends that the model of co-operative governance should be applied to all higher education institutions. What this basically means is the proliferation of forums and governing structures with worker, student and community representation tending to marginalise and weaken the position of administrators and academic faculty.

This recommendation is remarkable not only in its sheer interventionism but for the fact that the universities and technikons that have gone furthest down the road to this form of governance tend to be those in the greatest mess. No notice is taken of this.


It is clear that the objections raised by specialists in higher education to the NCHE proposals have not been dealt with adequately. It was widely known that the NCHE proposals on governance were the weakest of all the recommendations it put forward, and yet the Green Paper appears largely to have ignored earlier constructive criticisms.

Thus the Green Paper proposals seem certain to result in the further erosion of institutional autonomy. In addition, proposals for a complex, new, and inefficient bureaucracy, although scaled down in size, are still in the pipeline. The CHE will quite clearly be a further example of a state patronage body in which the politically correct give advice to the already politically correct - at considerable public expense. It must be stressed again that with these proposals South Africa is moving away from models that have worked well in the rest of the world and towards a system of governance of parochial origin with a poor track record to date.