A BATTLE is looming for control of South Africa's 35 universities and technikons. The government seems to want greater state intervention while institutions are arguing to keep their autonomy.
English-language universities are alarmed by a shift in policy from a model of "cooperative governance" proposed by the National Commission on Higher Education to the far greater government control outlined in the recently published higher education green paper.
Wieland Gevers, senior deputy vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town, said: "If the government is moving to a control model because it can't trust elements of the system, then we have a serious problem."
The green paper embraced the idea of cooperation at the institutional level, he said, but shifted to a control model at the level of the system.
He said it appeared the ministry would transform higher education and then allow cooperative governance. "That is not a good basis on which to ask higher education to transform. We all need to participate," he said.
Education minister Sibusiso Bengu has made no bones about his determination to bring about change and "level the playing fields" in higher education. He spoke recently about resistance among some in the sector, and his commitment to equity and redress.
Most institutions agree that the government should have a greater say in how public money is spent on higher education, which is strapped for cash, often wasteful but must produce the kind of graduates South Africa needs. But there is division over how much state control there should be, and how it should be exerted.
Many historically disadvantaged institutions feel the government must intervene to bring about equity and redress, while historically English white universities especially are worried that greater state control will inhibit their ability to perform and will seriously undermine institutional autonomy.
The national commission suggested the creation of a Higher Education Council to advise the government on policy, allocate funds and help the education department manage the system. There would also have been an advisory body comprising all sector stakeholders, called the Higher Education Forum.
The green paper suggests only one body, a Higher Education Council, comprising stakeholders and stripped of the power to help manage the system or approve funding allocations.
Education officials will allocate funds, with about 70 per cent going to institutions to deliver government-approved programmes, and about 30 per cent earmarked largely for redress programmes. Previously, institutions were given block grants, with which they could do as they pleased.
Brenda Gourley, vice chancellor of the University of Natal, said only one of 18 council members (all of whom have to be approved by the education minister) will represent university administrations. "This is alarming."
She believes that if universities and technikons work together and effect change they will be relatively safe. "If not, they will find the heavy hand of government upon them." Institutions refusing to change, she added, were giving grist to the mill of the argument that they have to be controlled by a central authority.
Professor Gevers is deeply concerned about the government's lack of trust. "The University of Cape Town is completely dedicated to transformation at every level. We want to play a maximum role and don't want to be seen as untrustworthy," he said. "Our views are not because we are trying to resist change and maintain the 'old order', but because we want to serve the South African people."