Autonomy as a Social Compact

CHE > Media and Publications > Research > Autonomy as a Social Compact
Andre du Toit
February, 2007

Executive summary

This report is a preliminary exploration of the potential of a ‘social compact approach’ for building shared understandings of academic freedom, institutional autonomy and accountability in contemporary South African higher education. The social compact approach is distinguished by its focus on institutional culture(s) in the light of historical trends and shifts, and on underlying social patterns and structural modes of governance – in contrast to approaches which take as their point of departure normative principles of academic freedom and autonomy or develop policy frameworks for the relation between university, state and society.

In broad outline, the report explores the underpinnings of a historical, albeit implicit, social compact between universities and the state, as evidenced by high levels of university autonomy in many countries in the mid-20th century; asks why this underlying pact began to break down and with what consequences for academic freedom and autonomy; and suggests possibilities for restoring a compact for autonomy as an effective defence of academic freedom in South Africa. The report comprises two parts. Part 1 develops an analytical framework for a social compact approach. Part 2 analyses the general implications of a social compact approach for the key issues of autonomy, academic freedom and accountability and applies these to the South African case. In so doing, the report lays the groundwork for future research into concrete issues of academic freedom in a possible social compact between South African higher education and society, such as: the need for professionalising academic tenure as a means of transforming the institutional culture of universities in terms of the freedom of research and teaching; and the basic problem of student access to, or exclusion from, the university as the core issue of the freedom to learn at the level of higher education. The following paragraphs outline the report’s more detailed arguments and findings.

Subsection 1.1 highlights aspects of the challenge of (re-)negotiating a comprehensive and enduring social accord for the contemporary university, including developing an understanding of different notions of what kind of university is needed for what kind of society; what university and society expect from each other; how the university fits into a democratic society; and how university, government and society influence one another. This scan of the terrain concludes that any attempt to address such questions must be rooted in an appropriate conceptualisation of academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

The report’s central framework for such a conceptualisation is introduced in subsection 1.2. Academic freedom is presented as a constitutive principle for the modern research university, while also recognising that particular aspects of academic freedom will be variously uncontroversial or highly contested, depending on different political cultures and divergent historical trajectories. Key distinctions in understandings of academic freedom are discussed in relation to the main trajectories – in the Anglo-Saxon world, continental Europe and (South) Africa – of the development of the modern research university. An encompassing framework for analysing claims to academic freedom in relation to autonomy and accountability is proposed, based on Graeme Moodie’s tripartite formulation of academic freedom. The three components of academic freedom as a composite ideal are: 1) scholarly freedom (individual academic freedom), 2) academic rule (in university governance) and, 3) the institutional autonomy of the university (in its external relations to state and society). The question is raised regarding the potential for conflict between these different components, e.g. the ways in which institutional autonomy under certain conditions may serve as the capstone of academic freedom but under other conditions might come to threaten scholarly freedom and academic rule.

In subsection 1.3 the three components of the composite ideal of academic freedom are developed into a more systematic analytical framework through an interrogation of potential internal and external threats applicable to each. Scholarly freedom (subsections 1.3.1 and 1.3.2) is the necessary condition of the development of research and teaching in specialised scholarly disciplines involving the collegial association of scholarly peers. It is argued that scholarly freedom necessarily involves a disabling restriction/exclusion of the lay public as a counterpart to inclusion of qualified scholars in “communities of the competent” (Haskell). A core question becomes: why should or could a democratic society and state agree to such autonomous ingroup empowerment of the scholarly community? Scholarly freedom in this special sense is distinguished from the general right to political free speech. An examination of the relationship between scholarly freedom and freedom of speech in a variety of historical/cultural contexts leads to the conclusion that, in South Africa today, despite the recognition of both academic freedom and freedom of speech in the Constitution, effective ways have yet to be consolidated to protect the public free speech rights of academics in extra-curricular contexts, for example, where academics as university employees come into conflict with their institutional administrations. Neither does scholarly freedom necessarily depend on collegial self-governance or academic rule (subsection 1.3.3), although specific forms of academic rule – the professorial chair, the academic department, the academic Senate – could, even if potentially corruptible in practice, serve to sustain and protect (professionalised) scholarly freedom. In turn, while institutional autonomy (subsection 1.3.4) is often taken to be equivalent to academic freedom, or as the ultimate capstone of scholarly freedom and academic rule, it is argued here that it is not a necessary condition for academic freedom and may even develop into a powerful internal threat against it. A four-part schema developed by Johan P Olsen – the university as 1) a community of scholars, 2) an instrument for national purposes, 3) a representative democracy, or 4) a service enterprise embedded in competitive markets – is used to illustrate that the significance and function of institutional autonomy shifts according to the way in which relations between university, state and society are conceived. Under an instrumental or political vision of the university, institutional autonomy may be negatively valued; under a constitutive or market vision it will be positively valued for opposite reasons. Likewise, a functional conception of institutional autonomy is primarily concerned with the extent to which a university as an institutional whole functions independently without undue interference by external parties or forces; in contrast, a substantive conception sees the sustaining and protection of academic rule and scholarly freedom as a necessary condition of institutional autonomy. It is argued that when institutional autonomy is primarily conceived in functional terms, then an executive management no longer fully committed to the core values of the academic and scholarly enterprise may come to constitute a threat to academic freedom.

Subsection 1.4 highlights the difference between a social compact approach as an analytical framework and as a historical development and social reality, noting that historical and comparative instances of social compacts for autonomy (in their various forms) may be explored in their own right and with a view to developing a more general analytical framework for understanding the elements, dynamics and enabling conditions for such compacts. For this reason, the second part of the report uses both a comparative context (including examination of more general academic cultures at work in university traditions in the United States, Britain, continental Europe, and Africa) and the South African case to explore core analytical questions about: the relevance of social compacts for autonomy in the contexts of scholarly disciplines, of university governance, and of economy and society; the mode of social compacts for autonomy (formal, informal, ‘theorised’); the terms, scope and objectives of social compacts for autonomy; and the relevant causal factors and conditions for these compacts.

Subsection 2.1 considers the apparent paradox of academic freedom as involving a social compact for autonomy. It finds that in practice the historical reality of such a social compact for autonomy – in Anglo-American and European societies, and even in South Africa making due allowance for historical distortions – can in part be accounted for by the changing stakes of the state and society in the university. Traditionally, universities had been elitist teaching institutions of relatively marginal economic and political significance, the autonomy of which could be implicitly tolerated as of little general consequence. In the 20th century two shifts changed this equation: an institutional shift from elitist teaching colleges to the emergence of the modern research university along with the democratisation and massification of higher education, and a conceptual shift from a constitutive conception of scholarly freedom to a social compact conception of academic freedom through the professionalisation of scholarship and the rise of the university-based academic profession. These created the conditions for a ‘high stakes’ social compact for autonomy that increasingly came under stress in various contexts. However, to some extent, post-colonial Africa must be viewed as an exception, as imported models of academic rule combined with socio-economic crises have tended to hinder the development of traditions of academic freedom and of the academic profession.

Subsection 2.2 examines comparative socio-political contexts and academic cultures as factors influencing social compacts for university autonomy. The analysis considers the relevant trajectories and features of the Anglo-Saxon academic culture, major continental European traditions, as well as the case of post-independence African universities (subsection 2.2.1), also comparing and contrasting these with the pattern of development of American academic culture (subsection 2.2.2). Drawing on the work of Guy Neave, an important distinction is made between the continental European “Roman” tradition of incorporating universities into the centralised nation state, and the British “Saxon” tradition of independently-founded university communities co-ordinated by a facilitatory state – with the latter being more conducive to, or dependent on, some form of underlying compact. The latter tradition is found to have been transplanted to South Africa with the key difference that here universities were statutory creations. African universities elsewhere are seen as being closer to the “Roman” mode of incorporation in both pre- and post-colonial periods, although again no straightforward mirroring is found. American academic culture is found to exhibit a complex and eclectic mix of traditions, while the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure of the Association of American University Professors (AAUP) and the Association of American Colleges (AAC) provides a significant instance of a historical pact on internal university governance. The key finding (subsection 2.2.3) is that the prospects of a social compact for autonomy differ appreciably according to socio-political context and the way in which academic freedom is configured in context.

Subsection 2.3 focuses on scholarly freedom as a social compact, tracing the lineage of the professionalisation and hegemony of academic scholarship. It is argued (subsection 2.3.1) that the development of an academic profession was closely allied to pursuit of the ideals of the modern research university (unity of teaching and research), and the associated growth of academic and institutional self-confidence. However, from the mid-20th century, these achievements generated contradictory social and political demands upon universities that have increasingly come to undercut the hegemony of the academic profession (subsection 2.3.2). A key finding (subsection 2.3.3) is that under these complex conditions, in South Africa as elsewhere, the furtherprofessionalisation of academic work is a vital internal prerequisite for any external compact between universities and society.

Subsection 2.4 explores the extent to which academic rule involves an internal compact in university governance, noting that academic governance paradoxically involves both hierarchical and egalitarian dimensions. Subsection 2.4.1 considers the governance structures in the core academic enterprise (collegialism) and subsection 2.4.2 considers the relationship between academics and other sectors of the university community. Collegialism is found to represent an internal compact amongst academic peers, though that does not imply democratic association with non-peers. However, collegialism is tempered in practice by co-existing forms of hierarchical and ‘mixed’ governance: the professorial chair; the academic department, intermediate structures, such as faculties and schools, and the academic Senate; the histories and traditions associated with these in various contexts are discussed. The AAUP/AAC Statement in the US is found to represent a rare example of an internal pact in which representatives of management (university presidents) and of the organised academic professoriate agreed to the principles of academic freedom and academic rule as an appropriate structure of university governance. However, no historical or contemporary equivalent is identified in South Africa. In sum, the discussion concludes (subsection 2.4.3) that, while an internal compact binding academic peers is fundamental to academic life, academic authority must also be built on demonstrated scholarly credentials assured through hierarchical means. Therefore a strong and professionalised system of academic tenure is a necessary condition for protecting scholarly freedom and ensuring academic rule within the university, whether or not this is based on any compact with the wider university community.

Subsection 2.5 proceeds to examine institutional autonomy of the university in social compact terms, culminating in a particular focus on the South African case. The discussion in subsections 2.5.1 and 2.5.2 highlights, especially through an exploration of the British case in contrast to continental European examples, the fact that institutional autonomy in the university’s external relations is not a necessary condition for scholarly freedom and academic rule within the university; that the institutional autonomy of the university has both external dimensions, in relation to state and society, and internal dimensions in terms of the relationship between executive management and the academic staff; that social compacts for autonomy may concern the university’s substantive autonomy (including scholarly freedom and academic rule) or its functional autonomy only; that a shift from the former to the latter may entail a threat to internal academic freedom; and that such a shift may occur more easily where compacts between state and society have been implicit rather than explicit. In contexts where universities are recognised to be key resources for social and political development, ‘high stakes’ are involved in social pacts for institutional autonomy. Subsection 2.5.3 discusses the possibility that under these circumstances the ‘managerial revolution’ inside universities may be aligning with governments’ drive for accountable university performance, towards a new social compact in support of functional – rather than substantive – autonomy. This is considered to hold a potentially serious threat to scholarly freedom and academic rule.

Subsection 2.5.4 examines institutional autonomy as a social compact in the South African case. It argues (subsection 2.5.4.1) that institutional relations between universities and the state in South Africa were highly ambivalent prior to 1994. The undoubted serious violations by the apartheid state of the universities’ institutional autonomy to decide on student access obscured the extent to which the state continued to respect elements of academic freedom. As a key example, under apartheid the liberal or ‘open’ universities were still allowed considerable institutional autonomy in terms of basic funding arrangements. Since 1994, the explicit framework for state-university relations has been the constitutionally-based higher education policy framework of ‘co-operative governance’, in which the state’s role is one of steering, while institutional autonomy is exercised within the limits of accountability as related to transformation imperatives. The framework of ‘co-operative governance’ is considered for its potential in terms of the makings of a new social compact for autonomy. Even more than some important unintended consequences, it is found that specific policy interventions have shifted relations between the state and universities: most prominently, compulsory institutional restructuring has unquestionably entailed some violation of institutional autonomy (subsection 2.5.4.2). Yet it is argued (subsection 2.5.4.3) that these shifts have not followed from government direction alone, but have also entailed the influence of different forms of managerialism: ‘strategic’ (soft), ‘entrepreneurial’ (hard), ‘transformative’ and ‘reformed collegial’ (following categories used by Tembile Kulati and Teboho Moja). Under these conditions, the absence of intermediary institutions between universities and the Department of Education has led to a breakdown of co-operative governance and thus to its ‘unmaking’ as a potential compact for accountable institutional autonomy. This breakdown is analysed in terms of three fault lines – between ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ institutions; between ‘collegialists’ and ‘managerialists’; and between a national agenda of redress and equity and one of efficiency – which also serve to suggest potential future alliances for forging a new social compact for autonomy.

The report’s conclusions are drawn in subsection 2.6 which recapitulates central arguments in the report, while providing a particular focus on the potential resolution of tensions among autonomy, academic freedom and accountability. First (subsection 2.6.1), different notions of accountability are distinguished and described (functional and hierarchical, political and public, financial and fiduciary, and collegial). Second, the discussion in subsection 2.6.2 relates the different kinds of accountability to the three components of academic freedom referenced throughout this report, and to different models of university organisation. A key conclusion is that while collegial accountability is core to scholarly freedom and academic rule, and is a vital component of institutional autonomy, a functional conception of institutional autonomy is in danger of reducing accountability to the minimalist terms of financial accountancy and ‘quality assurance’. Subsection 2.6.3 returns to an analysis of the breakdown of trust between universities and state and society, as a factor in the breakdown of former social compacts for university autonomy. It concludes that any new social compact should be based not on ‘trust’ but on accountable autonomy. Specifically, a new social compact is seen as involving three elements. The first element is professionalisation of the scholarly enterprise and of the institutional culture of university-based academics; this is the necessary condition for an internal pact for accountable, scholarly freedom, which also has external legitimacy in state and society. The second element is a strong academic tenure system buttressed by a system-wide representative and accountable academic staff association, and by the commitment of representatives of university leadership and executive management to substantive institutional autonomy; these create the conditions for an internal compact ensuring academic rule, based on strong scholarly qualifications. The third element is a complex institutional coalition for accountable substantive autonomy; its dual conditions are an external compact between executive management and the state – supported in practice by an intermediate system-wide representative forum of higher education institutions – and an internal compact between management and academic faculty within particular universities.