Students snub brainstorming

May 10, 1996

South Africa's National Commission on Higher Education has unveiled to the rest of the world its recently released discussion document on the future of universities.

More than 30 international experts met with South African higher educationists for a week of discussions on the document (THES, April 26) at the Salzburg Seminar in Austria.

Student representatives have boycotted the South African group: the two student leaders of the umbrella organisations representing student representative councils at universities and technikons pulled out in the face of opposition from student political organisations, which had not been invited.

Last weekend, members of the commission, chaired by Jairam Reddy, faced severe criticism at a conference of 320 delegates from South African higher education.

But the main complaints were not about the 49 proposals to reform governance, systems and funding: student, business and union representatives were most concerned about lack of consultation, lack of time to respond to the proposals - the final report has to be handed to the education minister by the end of July - and lack of detail to interpret the proposals.

Since the commission has failed to gain an extension to the deadlines given it by the department of education, it was decided that students, business and staff would take up the cause, and that the deadline to respond to the proposals should be extended by two weeks, to the end of May.

In Salzburg, members of the commission were anxious to hear international reaction to their proposed new system of higher education governance, called "cooperative governance".

The model, with its "intermediary" bodies for government, academics and all those involved in higher education, is an attempt to resolve growing pressure for higher education transformation, to get warring factions in a highly volatile sector to pull together rather than apart, and to increase government influence over institutions.

The commission proposes that academic freedom and institutional autonomy over teaching and research, be entrenched in the final constitution.

Institutions will be expected to be more accountable, both in terms of responsibility to outside constituencies and to groups within the higher education community.

Students have already expressed dissatisfaction with the exclusion of representatives from the proposed Higher Education Council, and along with some staff are bound to resist the apparently minimal powers of institutional forums, which are a new version of current transformation forums.

Since May 1994, the discussion document says, there have been repeated calls for the minister of education to intervene in institutional crises ranging from allegations of corruption to ungovernability and recalcitrant management.

"To prevent South Africa slipping into a model of state interference the commission proposes that the minister and the two intermediary bodies negotiate those ministerial actions, procedures and interventions which are acceptable and under which conditions."

In Africa the higher education policy debate is argued from three seemingly incompatible positions.

The first (white) position asserts the autonomy of institutions against any form of state interference. The second (black) position believes that universities should accept government control. The third sees higher education in postcolonial countries as a key agent of social change and mobility in education and society.

Tensions between these positions have resulted in what Ethiopian scholar Mahmood Mamdami has described as a destructive conflict between "expatriates and locals" in which both have contributed to the undermining of universities.

The discussion document states: "Calls for autonomy were interpreted as defending racial privilege, while simultaneously the long-term interests of the university and democracy were undermined by calls for government intervention."

Last year the Association of African Universities supported South African education minister Sibusiso Bengu's call for a new governance relationship "expressed not in terms of autonomy but rather in terms of close collaboration so that the university becomes an agent of change, fully engaged with the state in fulfilling national objectives".

The result is cooperative governance. While institutions will be protected from political interference through the constitutional clauses, the government will steer the system via the council and funding.

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