The South African government is to clamp down firmly on troubled universities and technikons by granting the education minister power to appoint administrators to run mismanaged institutions for up to a year.
Education minister Kader Asmal will tread a thin line between undermining institutional autonomy and intervention in collapsing universities and technikons.
Universities specifically warned of threats to institutional autonomy when the 1997 higher education act gave government the power to send independent assessors to investigate institutions in financial or administrative trouble.
Now a clause in a bill tabled in parliament extends this power to enable a government appointee to manage or govern any institution revealed by a financial audit or independent investigation to be in serious financial or administrative difficulty, or to be dysfunctional.
Since 1997, assessors have investigated four institutions, including Vaal Triangle Technikon and the universities of Transkei and Fort Hare. In each case they have blamed the institutions' councils for failing to resolve problems and recommended that the principal be fired.
The latest case involves Durban's Mangosuthu Technikon, where a four-week strike against vice-chancellor Aaron Ndlovu ended with three students and a lecturer being shot and wounded by security guards.
Independent assessor Jaap Durand recommended Professor Ndlovu's removal because of an irretrievable breakdown in his relationship with staff. Professor Ndlovu is on special leave until the end of December. The technikon's council will next week decide whether to terminate his services. If it does not, Mr Asmal will be able to use his new powers to overrule the council.
The new bill explains that the minister's powers are aimed at ending an "appalling lack" of management capacity because the councils and heads of some institutions are being derelict in their duties.
There is little point in the government investigating such institutions if it is unable to act on the problems revealed. As a safeguard against action in trivial cases, state intervention will be possible only following a formal audit.
Colin Bunday, vice-chancellor of the University of the Wi****ersrand, said: "I think it may be difficult to square this power with traditional notions of autonomy. On the other hand, the role of assessors already exists in the legislation, and giving the minister the power to act on their assessments is a logical progression."