Fears that government has “captured” SA universities

Legal experts and academics have expressed concerns over new laws which they believe will undermine the independence of South Africa’s universities.

The 2016 Higher Education Amendment Act became largely operational last week, reports Legalbrief’s Pam Saxby.

The Act empowers the minister of higher education to determine transformation goals for the sector, along with oversight mechanisms to ensure that they are achieved.

These include the “articulation and recognition” of prior learning frameworks across the education, as well as the ability to amend the criteria for recognition as a university, university college, or higher education.

“Less widely reported in the media are provisions in the new statute,” said Saxby.

“(These) strengthen the minister’s powers to intervene when a tertiary institution has been found to be ‘underperforming’; and facilitating ‘stricter oversight’ of government subsidy spending.”

These include the power to change the processes, procedures and mandates of universities and other higher education institutions.

It also empowers the minister to withhold funding in cases where the minister deems it necessary.

Speaking on the passing of the bill last year, Democratic Alliance MP Belinda Bozzoli said the party opposed several clauses in the amendment bill – specifically those that gave the minister wider powers to intervene in university business.

“Today, with the failure of existing methods of fixing the dysfunctional universities, the minister seeks to expand his powers,” said Bozzoli.

“The new bill has a clause which means that he will now only need to have ‘reason to believe’ – rather than concrete proof – that intervention is necessary. It will become easier to suspend university independence, and more difficult to challenge such a decision in court.

“The bill also proposes to give the minister new powers to issue directives to the [university] council for up to five years after the administrator leaves. This extends the period of suspension of university autonomy from two years to seven. We oppose this clause.”

Read: Wits trumps UCT for the second time in global university ranking

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Fears that government has “captured” SA universities