Academic Freedom, Institutional Autonomy and the Corporatised University in Contemporary South Africa


There can be no better time for the Council on Higher Education (CHE) to investigate whether institutional autonomy and academic freedom are under threat in South Africa. Xolela Mangcu’s departure from the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and Ashwin Desai’s troubles with the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) have sparked a national debate on academic freedom and institutional autonomy (Haffajee 2005; Macfarlane 2006). These have not been isolated incidents. Some years earlier, similar concerns arose as a result of separate disputes between Caroline White and Robert Shell with their respective managements at UKZN and Rhodes University (Magardie 2000; Southall & Cobbing 2002). In all these cases debate went far beyond the academy. Indeed they became the subject of national conversations in the printed media and radio talk shows. The concern, beyond the individual cases, was whether academic freedom was being violated either by institutional managers or by government’s involvement in academic and research institutions.

On their own, these incidents might not have been enough to motivate the CHE to open a debate on the subject. However about two years ago, Jonathan Jansen, the Dean of Education at the University of Pretoria (UP), sparked another debate on the subject with two provocative presentations to the Institute of Race Relations and the University of Cape Town (UCT), in which he accused the Department of Education (DoE) of undermining higher education institutions’ autonomy and academics’ freedom through the funding formulae and legislative interventions (Jansen 2004a, 2004b). These presentations were followed by a series of articles and fora hosted by independent research centres where opinions were again sharply polarised (Badsha 2004; CHE 2004; Du Toit 2004, 2005; Nongxa 2004; Pandor 2004). Cumulatively, these events motivated the CHE to invoke its mandate, which requires it to investigate issues of national concern in higher education proactively, and it established a task team on the state of institutional autonomy and academic freedom in South Africa. Indeed, as the country is now in its second decade of democracy, sufficient time has elapsed to make at least provisional judgements as to how society and its institutions, amongst them institutions of higher education and research, are evolving. To do this effectively, we must deal with the issues as dispassionately as possible under the circumstances.

At the outset, it is important to identify to whom we are referring when the debate on institutional autonomy and academic freedom is engaged. Who are the alleged violators of academic freedom? Clearly the debate in contemporary South Africa is not the same as that under apartheid.2 Neither is it the same as in some others parts of the continent and world where academics are regularly harassed, maimed, jailed and even killed (Africa Watch 1991, Diouf & Mamdani 1994). In these cases, the repressive apparatus of the state violates academics’ freedom. Contemporary South Africa is not confronted with such a threat.

But who then are the alleged perpetrators of this crime in contemporary South Africa? Jonathan Jansen (2004a, 2004b) and many of the institutional managers in the historically white universities believe that the supposed violator is the state. But their ire is directed not at the repressive arm of the state, but rather at the bureaucrats at the DoE and maybe even the CHE. For Jansen, these bureaucrats have made severe incursions into institutional autonomy through the funding formulae and the post-apartheid legislative apparatus. The result, he argues, is not only a violation of university autonomy but also of the freedom of individual academics.

But there is a second set of perpetrators of this crime, namely institutional bureaucrats within the walls of the universities. We include Councils in this category, as well as those in administrative hierarchies up to and including Vice-Chancellors. Scholars such as Roger Southall and Julian Cobbing (2005), and André du Toit (2004, 2005), speak of these alleged violators of academic freedom. They refer to the corporatisation of the university, and note how the new managerialism undermines the collegiate governance and atmosphere of the academy. This is the essence of Du Toit’s critique of Jansen. He argues that Jansen is able to conflate institutional autonomy and academic freedom, following TB Davie’s original formulation, because he sees the threat as external.3 But once it is recognised as internal, as does Du Toit, then the conflation itself becomes dangerous for academic freedom (Du Toit 2000b, 2001, 2005). This is because institutional autonomy could in the end empower the institutional bureaucrat to such an extent that the freedom of individual academics could be imperilled.

The third set of alleged violators of academic freedom is that of senior academics themselves. This has not often been recognised in the recent debate, but the argument was made in a provocative article published in the late 1990s in Debate, a left wing journal. In “Death of the Intellectual, Birth of the Salesman” the authors, Ashwin Desai and Heinrich Bohmke (1996), tracked the writings of leading Marxist scholars in the 1980s and 1990s. Desai and Bohmke argued that these scholars no longer determine their research agendas themselves, but that they are determined rather by those prepared to buy their research and writing skills, most often the government or the private sector. They claimed that academic freedom in this case was violated by the propensity of senior academics to sell their skills to the highest bidder.

The studies identified in the preceding paragraphs are not summarised here to contest or support any of the perspectives advanced. After all, there is at least a kernel of truth in all of these analyses. They are subjected to more detailed reflection later in the paper. The purpose in considering these arguments at this stage is to bring to the fore the range of stakeholders involved in this debate. Moreover, it is useful to demonstrate that the divide is not as neat as one may at first assume and that the debate needs more nuanced conceptualisation than appears to have happened thus far.

We hope to do this in the pages that follow. First, however, we reflect on the experiences of academic and institutional freedom in the first decades of post-colonial transition in Sub-Saharan Africa. This is necessary because, as Mahmood Mamdani (1992) argued over a decade ago, they seem to be very similar to those of contemporary South Africa. Understanding how these countries dealt with similar issues, and the consequences thereof, is important to enable us to understand the future consequences of the present state of affairs on academic freedom and institutional autonomy in this country. It is also useful in providing comparative lessons that may help to chart a strategic path that reinforces the twin goals of academic freedom and social accountability in South Africa.

This becomes the focus of the second part of the paper. In an attempt to transcend the polarised character of the present debate, we undertake a theoretical analysis of different conceptions of rights and how these apply to institutional autonomy and academic freedom. This section concludes by favouring, as does André du Toit (2000a, 2001), a republican interpretation of academic freedom that couples it to social accountability. But we argue that the republican interpretation on its own does not resolve the problem of realising institutional autonomy and academic freedom in South Africa. Learning again from the African experience, we recognise that academic freedom and institutional autonomy will not be the automatic product of the articulation of a progressive interpretation of rights and its codification in a regulatory framework. Rather we argue that these outcomes will be a product of how power is organised within higher education. More precisely, we argue that it is in the contestation among empowered stakeholders – state technocrats, institutional bureaucrats within universities, academics, students, and a variety of other collectives – that institutional autonomy and academic freedom will be constructed. How to empower these stakeholders through policy reform and through measures that are embedded in economic and social realities is then the focus of this section. Finally, the paper concludes with a summary of the various strands of the argument and with recommendations as to how to advance institutional autonomy and academic freedom in South Africa.


  1. The authors would like to thank those, particularly Rob Morrell and Nico Cloete, who have commented on this paper.

  2. Cheryl de la Rey, in an interview on 25 April 2006, commented that it is important to understand the notion of academic freedom in its historical context. The classical account of academic freedom – that of total non-interference by the state – reflects a response from a particular time, when the state’s interference was unduly threatening. However, the concept now needs to be revisited in light of the change in context, as definitions must always be historically informed.