"University autonomy under threat" was one headline in South Africa's Financial Mail in the past few weeks. It drew attention to the new higher education bill being presented to parliament and to the powers that the legislation gives to the minister of education.
Among the powers which have focussed the attention of many are those that allow the minister, after consultation (as opposed to "in consultation with" - a distinction to which lawyers attach great significance), to merge public higher education institutions and to determine their language policy.
Universities in South Africa have such starkly different histories, most of them rooted in the ideology of apartheid, and the debate is fraught with issues of redress. The historically disadvantaged institutions (HDIs) have grouped themselves into a forum (the HDI Forum) to represent their interests. They have also made powerful assaults on both the government and funders to champion their cause rather than continue to fund those universities which were and are historically advantaged.
One does not need to be particularly perceptive to understand the reasons why the issue is charged with emotional baggage collected over a long period of time. The debate is one which bedevils so much of the discussion about higher education in South Africa that it threatens a winner-takes-all path rather than one which achieves a balance of interests.
I say balance of interests because all institutions in the country have been subjected to a variety of serious subsidy cuts. Even those which are viewed enviously by the less fortunate HDIs are worried about maintaining their quality and international standing. Jeopardising that would not be in the interests of our people. Once destroyed, they are all but impossible to recreate.
So why would a government committed to justice and democracy want such powers over higher education? It is the pace of transformation at the historically advantaged institutions that exasperates and provokes such legislation. Not all such institutions have made dramatic changes to the composition of their student bodies or embraced affirmative action in respect of their staff. Many have not made any concerted effort to change the learning and teaching environment where different cultures and mores affect the success and wellbeing of the university community. These things do not happen quickly.
So when a government and minister make it clear that if you do not do what they deem necessary and desirable they will do 'it' for you, bells ring. The extraordinary thing is that, if any country should have learnt the dangers of leaving power in the hands of one or even a few, it is South Africa. In the apartheid years my university took the then minister of education to court more than once and won. But we could not prevail against official government policy. We were punished for having a black medical school and a lot of that punishment took the form of funding us and other "white" medical schools disparately. Our teaching hospital (the biggest in Africa) was black and again hopelessly underfunded. We still produced fine doctors honed in a hard school but it was unnecessarily difficult, and were it not for the fine example of the staff who were determined to make it possible, we might have had to succumb to government pressure and abandon the attempt to teach black doctors.
South Africa has 11 official languages. Most universities teach in English, some in Afrikaans. Language is always an emotive issue and one understands that. In South Africa, again with such a divided history, the language policies of some universities are perceived (rightly or wrongly) to be a way of remaining exclusive and unaffected by the need to admit as many young black people as have the potential to succeed. Constitutional rights are involved but most people recognise the sheer non-feasibility of universities presenting courses in 11 languages and a relatively easy accommodation has been struck. The minister's new powers - if exercised - may well upset such accommodation.
So, when finally justice and democracy have prevailed, we find ourselves contemplating legislation which divides us as a sector. The HDI Forum does not seem concerned that the bill weakens institutional autonomy and puts faith in the so-called "co-operative governance" model the bill seeks to implement, seemingly drawing strength from the consultative process that the minister is required to follow. In particular, it puts its faith in the Council for Higher Education, set up as an interface representing all interests in the sector. Only two university vice chancellors will sit on this body and all 30 members will be appointed by the minister. Pardon those of us who are sceptical. Today's benign despot is tomorrow not necessarily so benign.
The fact is, autonomy is not an absolute. It is a finely measured continuum. As long as an institution is funded by public money, those who are elected to oversee how that money is spent will make policy and create policy steers - many of which are in the form of cash incentives.
Where, one wonders, along this continuum, do we draw the battle lines? At what point does one say "thus far and no further"? Is it when the minister of health threatens to take a hand in selecting students for medical schools because not all medical schools are admitting black students at an acceptable pace? Is it when government starts taking an active interest in curriculum matters because there needs to be more emphasis on certain sets of disciplines rather than others or it deems certain curricular content to be too "Eurocentric"? Is it when government starts taking a heavy hand in staff appointments - for example, where those appointments provide services in state hospitals?
The line has been crossed in many Commonwealth countries. As we agonise about making an international incident over any particular action in case it makes life worse for our academic colleagues labouring under such regimes, our failure to do so might well be a gross error of judgement. Some issues of autonomy are so fundamental that their removal should provoke instant and vociferous protest. What kind of "international community of scholars" can we pretend to be if we dither around unable to make up our minds about what those issues are?
Selecting students and staff and determining curricula seems pretty fundamental to me. Merging institutions does not. Language policy we may well have to leave the courts to decide. One thing, however, is clear: our constitution guarantees academic freedom at a personal level but not at an institutional level. Go figure.
Brenda Gourley is vice chancellor of the University of Natal.