Academic Freedom and University Autonomy, Professor George Devenish
The institutional boundaries a government may or may not cross are examined in this piece by Professor Devenish. He was responding to a debate about university autonomy and how much say a government can have when it is subsidizing institutions. The professor explains the thinking behind protecting academic freedom and university autonomy in the writing of the South African Constitution.
University students, as a result of their largely peaceful, concerted and robust protests obtained a significant victory when President Zuma announced that there would be a 0% increase in fees for the 2016 academic year and undertook to investigate the issue of free tertiary education and related matters.
For this they deserve to be commended.
As a result of this state of affairs there has been a call for a review of the cognate issues of university autonomy and academic freedom, concerning the former University of KwaZulu-Natal’s head of public affairs, Lesiba Seshoka’s, comments in an excellent opinion piece in the Sunday Tribune (November 1, 2015) that there has been “a simmering war between the universities and the government”. In this same piece he comments further that “a careful balance between autonomy and public accountability is essential if South African universities are to maintain their standards and reputations”. This sentiment is explored and commented on below.
In the same newspaper although Prof Ahmed Bawa presents a powerful apology for university autonomy 'Institutions need autonomy to transform', he, however, fails to point out that university autonomy and academic freedom are inextricably intertwined. This is important because section 16 of the Constitution declares that: Everyone has the right to freedom of expression which includes:
(a)... (d) academic freedom and freedom of scientific research. No mention is made of university autonomy.
It is however submitted that because the two concepts are by their very nature inextricably intertwined it is not possible to de-link them. For the executive by means of legislation such as, for instance, an amendment to the Higher Education Act to interfere with or eliminate university autonomy must of necessity involve academic freedom as well. This does not mean that there is not a need for the broad transformation of our universities to accurately reflect the nature and ethos of contemporary South Africa, 20 years after the inception of the final Constitution of 1996. Indeed the gravamen of Prof Bawa's argument is that this very autonomy is essential for such transformation.
It is submitted that any legislative or executive intrusion into the autonomy of the universities would adversely impact on the international reputation and standing of these institutions. Several of these institutions of higher learning do indeed have an international reputation. This most certainly applies to UCT, where the world's first heart transplant was performed by Prof Chris Barnard, and the University of the Witwatersrand, several of whose alumni have been awarded Nobel Prizes. The Universities of KwaZulu-Natal, Rhodes, Stellenbosch and the Pretoria also have international reputations for scholarship and research. These universities are an invaluable asset to our country and their continued contribution and reputation should not in any way be harmed in the process of transformation.
This does not in any way mean that transformation is not necessary. Our universities need to be transformed to reflect the diverse nature of our society in Africa, in a way that retains their international reputation and influence. Our diverse society is indeed a meeting point of Africa, the East and the West. This diversity, constituted by the indigenous African people, people of Indian and European origin greatly enriches our society. No culture is superior and they must in accordance with the Constitution, be treated on the basis of equality. There is however an urgent need to bring about economic and cultural equality in South Africa in regard to which, the universities have an indispensable role to play in this regard. African culture and the rehabilitation of the indigenous people, both in the urban and rural areas need urgent attention. In this regard the universities have a crucial role to play in a process of deconstruction and intellectual and social decolonization.
Any legislative or executive attempt to interfere with the autonomy of the universities and hence academic freedom is likely to be resisted in a cogent way that must of necessity involve the courts being called on to adjudicate. This is undesirable, and what is, it is submitted, is, inter alia, a national charter that commits universities to transformation involving all the role players, students, the universities themselves, the state and the public and private enterprise. The latter as the benefactor of skilled and educated persons, has an important financial and other contribution to make, as the state alone does not have sufficient resources. It is submitted that state coercion is not desirable, but rather a system of co-operative endeavor similar to that provided for in Chapter 3 of the Constitution, dealing with co-operative government. This should be perceived as a formidable challenge to all the role players, students, university management, the state and civil society and private enterprise. It needs to be constructive and proactive.