State grip too tight for comfort

April 18, 1997

FROM THE hothouse universities of the tiger economies of the Far East to Africa's riot-torn and constantly closed campuses, there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence to suggest growing state interference which potentially endangers academic freedom and violates the principle of institutional autonomy.

Academic freedom and university autonomy are defining elements of a healthy university system.

Today, the first objective assessment of the degree of government control over universities throughout the Commonwealth is published. The Grip of the State seeks to chart the extent to which state involvement has become unacceptable interference.

To construct a continuum between the state supervision model (acceptable) and state control model (undesirable), the researchers reviewed both published literature and legal documentation, and circulated a questionnaire to vice chancellors of 70 Commonwealth universities, getting a 76 per cent response rate.

The 55 questions were drafted to provide "performance indicators" for the degree of state involvement - who appoints the chancellor and vice chancellor, whether approval is needed to fix course fees and new degree programmes, whether a government has closed a university in the past or sent police on to campus, its involvement in questions related to teaching and research, and whether staff need approval to travel within the country.

The outcomes have to be treated with caution. The level of direct government intervention acceptable in developing countries facing acute resource shortages and immense social and economic problems will inevitably be regarded as a threat to autonomy in the more developed economies of the United Kingdom, Australasia and North America.

The answers come from the vice chancellors of the sampled universities - political animals with one eye firmly on the very relationship to government they are assessing. The report admits that while the scores for the seven Commonwealth "regions" mask wide variations between institutions, it was "inappropriate" to publish scores for individual universities.

The regional results reveal the Caribbean, UK and Australasia well towards the state supervision end of the continuum for both autonomy and academic freedom, with Africa, the Mediterranean and Asia tending more to the state control model.

In the UK the indicators suggest low state control of academic freedom but a higher involvement in the autonomy of institutions than is suggested by the legal documentation.

Australia emerges with a score for academic freedom greater than New Zealand while for Australasia as a whole growing state involvement over the past few years registers with a higher score for state control in institutional autonomy despite a low score for academic freedom.

In Africa scores for both freedom and autonomy are surprisingly close to the Commonwealth median, possibly because the universities responding to the survey felt less at risk from state intimidation, or because vice chancellors took a different view of the role of the state in universities than their counterparts in other parts of the Commonwealth.

Canada's provincial university system produced a state control score for institutional autonomy for North America which was the lowest in the Commonwealth. The picture was not so clear-cut in the area of academic freedom where Canadian universities could only match the Commonwealth median and were "beaten" not only by the UK, Australasia and the Caribbean but by Africa.

Asia emerges as the region with the greatest degree of state control in both freedom and autonomy in the Commonwealth. The researchers found a sensitivity in some universities to anything which might be seen as critical of government. State involvement is greater than anywhere else in the Commonwealth. Government control is exercised through involvement in internal structures and detailed references in legislation, covering planning, finance, staffing, law and order.

Generally the researchers agree that more sophisticated controls through planning mechanisms and buffer bodies mean less government interest in day to day governance. Predictably, governments are happy with this arm's-length relationship but it has its price for universities - many vice chancellors complained they were drowning in a welter of paper returns and statistics, a state the researc-hers describe as less state-controlled than state-stressed.

The Grip of the State: A studyof the Relationships between Governments and Universities in Selected Commonwealth Countries by Geoffrey Richardson and John Fielden. Published by Commonwealth Higher Education Management Systems, 36 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PF, Pounds 12.50

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