In mature democracies, academic freedom and institutional autonomy are generally concepts that are taken for granted. They can even be seen to be arcane or conservative notions, inherent in
an order of higher education that prides itself on pursuing knowledge for its own sake only, or even, in some contexts, as excuses for upholding exclusive academic privileges or protecting universities from the brutal realities of the challenges of the broader society in which they are situated. Yet, in instances where the academy perceives that academic freedom and institutional autonomy are under threat, these concepts gain traction, and are defended with vigour. In such circumstances, academic freedom and institutional autonomy become hotly contested concepts, with widely differing perceptions of what they mean and when they may be invoked in legitimate defence of the academy.
Indeed, the level of intensity of debate around academic freedom and institutional autonomy is a measure of the health or otherwise of a higher education system and the society in which it is located.
The recently formed Council for the Defence of British Universities, for example, is indicative of a society in which the tension between institutions of higher education and what has been perceived to be increasingly intrusive managerialism on the part of the state has become overt after simmering for many decades. The noise thus created around academic freedom and institutional autonomy exemplifies the extent to which such notions matter in times of stress, and the extent to which the academy will go to defend the space it needs to pursue and create knowledge which it understands to be in the long-term interest of society. The noise of debate is healthy: in mature democracies such noise often heralds a new accommodation in the relationship between higher education and the state in which notions of academic freedom and institutional autonomy again recede into the realm of taken-for-granted notions.
How much more worrying, then, is silence around these issues in young democracies such as South Africa, where threats to academic freedom and/or institutional autonomy may be becoming more commonplace? The recent changes to legislation in higher education in South Africa, affording the Minister of Higher Education and Training the right to intervene in the management of institutions on an almost undefined set of pretexts is an example of such threats.
What is more baffling is that the changes have been met with an ominous silence on the part of the academy. Why the silence? Is it because institutions have, as in the British context, become subject to funding regimes that reach deep into the affairs of an institution such that none wants to be the tall poppy in the field for fear of the punitive funding scythe? Is it because institutions, in the South African context, fear being labelled as conservative and anti-transformation if they complain? Is it because they are so battle-worn with policy changes and increasing regulation and trying to deal with a myriad of intractable challenges that they don’t really care? Whatever the reason, silence, in this instance, is not healthy.
Given the above, this edition of Kagisano is timely. It brings together contributions on academic freedom and institutional autonomy in the South African context that should serve to bring the debates to the forefront, and, as Lange asserts, help not only to protect higher education and its academics, but the democratic project itself. Let there be noise.