Task Team on Higher Education, Institutional Autonomy and Academic Freedom (HEIAAF): Academic Freedom, Institutional Autonomy and Public Accountability in South African Higher Education

Executive Summary

This is the report of the independent Task Team on Higher Education, Institutional Autonomy and Academic Freedom (HEIAAF), established by the Council on Higher Education (CHE) in mid-2005. The Task Team has interrogated the nature of regulation of South African higher education by government and other agencies since 1994; and has sought to promote debate on conceptions of academic freedom, institutional autonomy and public accountability, especially in the context of transformation. The Task Team investigation was prompted by concerns and claims that government steering of higher education risked becoming ‘interference’. These concerns arose from shifts both actual and perceived in the policy and implementation trajectory particularly from the late 1990s. The enquiry was also informed by recent (largely unresolved) scholarly, sectoral and public debates about the state of academic freedom, institutional autonomy and accountability in South African higher education.

Chapter 1 provides more details of the background and terms of reference of the HEIAAF enquiry (Sections 1.1 and 1.2). The Task Team gave particular attention to such questions as:

  • What conceptions of academic freedom, institutional autonomy and public accountability prevail or contend in South African higher education today?

  • To what extent has the mode of state steering for higher education changed after 1994, or violated academic freedom and institutional autonomy? and

  • Is there a need to rethink the mode of steering higher education and how could that be done?

The Task Team followed a process which stimulated research and debate, and generated materials far more extensive than this final report. Its methodology encompassed submissions, commissioned research and expert opinion, interviews and discussion fora (Section 1.3). HEIAAF submissions did not cite outright state interference in higher education, but gave the Task Team a clear sense that stakeholders perceived government to act undemocratically at times. Interlinked processes of debate, research, dissemination and reflection served especially to highlight points of conceptual convergence and divergence underpinning perspectives on the governance of higher education, giving the Task Team material to develop as the basis for analysis of the regulatory environment. This in turn informed the structure and approach of the Task Team report (Section 1.4) which proposes duly contextualised conceptualisation - in terms of global and local trends and complexities – of co-operation, academic freedom, autonomy and accountability as a framework of principles for evaluating higher education steering. The report does not, however, claim that consensus on key concepts and the nature of steering exists in all respects. Instead it aims to contribute to shared understandings, and to invigorate debate in areas where consensus may be unachievable or even undesirable.

Chapter 2 provides the Task Team’s examination of four essential concepts: co-operative governance (Section 2.2), academic freedom (Section 2.3), institutional autonomy (Section 2.4) and accountability (Section 2.5). This is prefaced by a discussion of the fragmented history of South African higher education (Section 2.1) and its legacy of conceptual variance and confusion. In particular, academic freedom and institutional autonomy have been easily conflated, while accountability has been poorly or narrowly understood.

With respect to co-operative governance, the Task Team accepts that the policy framework of ‘co-operative governance’ (Section 2.2.1) intends a multi-tiered system in which constituencies work co-operatively with government in a steering capacity, and in which institutional autonomy should facilitate academic freedom and accountability. However, there have been very different understandings of co-operation in practice; and different ideas have emerged in the HEIAAF enquiry about how to revitalise the ‘state-sector’ relationship (Section 2.2.2). The Task Team considers, among others, the arguments: that ‘co-operative government’ as defined in the Constitution applies to the relationship between government and universities as ‘organs of state’; that higher education governance can be conceived and implemented as a ‘social compact’ for institutional autonomy; and that the balance between autonomy and accountability must be continuously struck in shifting conditions. Ultimately, the Task Team is most in support of the last idea, finding that co-operation – however formulated in policy - is a critical element of how higher education functions in a democratising society (Section 2.2.3). This requires high levels of participation and continuous engagement between all actors free to exercise their powers and their interests. The Task Team is wary, in the absence of any test in the courts, of deeming universities organs of state. This notion may, under certain conditions, risk aligning universities with government policy choices not necessarily identical with constitutional imperatives (including academic freedom) for which higher education is responsible to society.

In its analysis of academic freedom, the Task Team explores (Section 2.3.1) how a renewed concept and practice of academic freedom in higher education can benefit South African society at large, recognising that the Constitution allows academic freedom to ‘everyone’ and not specifically to academics or universities. It finds that any such reformulation begins by seeking to counter potential and actual external and internal threats to the academy – state repression and/or interference, over-control by government bureaucracies and institutional hierarchies, commercial and functional impingements on academic work, and unreformed institutional cultures. Here it is found useful to consider different elements associated with the academy that need to be exercised, supported and protected by state and society and at sectoral, institutional and academic levels of governance (Section 2.3.2). The Task Team conceptualises academic freedom as residing in a particular configuration of these elements: constitutional deliberative democracy, or participation by state authority, citizens and academics on issues and choices in society; the scholarly freedom of individual academics and students; collegial and accountable participation by groups of academics in the governance of academic affairs at university level (‘academic rule’); institutional autonomy as a support to scholarly freedom and academic rule; and the range of accountabilities associated with all of these. Potential ways of consolidating academic freedom and free speech in contemporary South African higher education are suggested, with an emphasis on the need to empower academics, their freedoms and responsibilities, rather than a focus on any particular preferred means for doing so.

With respect to institutional autonomy, the Task Team understands that this idea admits of no universal understanding or practice, but is context-specific. The HEIAAF investigation converges on the concept of ‘substantive autonomy’ as suitable for the South African higher education context (Section 2.4.1). On this understanding, institutional governance is exercised to ensure that the institution serves social and public purposes – rather than functional and/or instrumental political, institutional or market goals. It is also exercised to support scholarship, academic freedom and other constitutive values of the academy integral to higher education’s accountabilities to society – rather than to quell these in the name, for example, of ‘efficiency’ or ‘discipline’. Modes of co-operation inside institutions and the sector, and between institutions and government, should actively consolidate substantive autonomy (Section 2.4.2), as this does not appear to be consistently practised in South African higher education as yet. Here suggestions include: an intermediate system-wide process, or possibly a representative forum or specifically constituted fora from time to time, for the purposes of interaction between higher education institutions, government, regulatory agencies and other sectors of society; as well as sectoral initiatives to promote and give effect to sectoral and institutional self-regulation, along the lines already advocated by higher education institutions’ sectoral body (Higher Education South Africa/HESA).

The concept of accountability has received less attention in South African higher education than academic freedom or institutional autonomy. The Task Team finds (Section 2.5.1) that public accountability as formulated in South African higher education policy refers rather narrowly to the application of public funding to achieving public policy goals. In contrast, the Task Team views higher education accountability as multi-faceted, containing distinct but reciprocal elements of collegial, functional, fiduciary and public or social accountability. These dimensions in combination should ensure that academic endeavour serves the public good, as higher education’s ‘democratic accountability’ is not oriented around national goals for transformation only, but also inheres in an effective defence and practice of academic freedom and substantive institutional autonomy. Moreover, democratic accountability is best conceived not as a static goal, but as a dynamic process. The Task Team concludes (Section 2.5.2) that government should formally review how successfully it is meeting the requirements of its democratic accountability in relation to higher education. It also proposes some institutionalised forms of accountability at system, institutional and intermediate layers to deal with the continuously emergent nature of higher education accountability. These include: stakeholder representations made directly to Parliament, formal and informal channels for engagement within higher education governance, and a mechanism to promote the accountability of Councils to society.

Chapter 3 analyses and assesses the regulatory environment of higher education in South Africa after 1994, using understandings generated in Chapter 2 of co-operation, academic freedom, substantive autonomy and democratic accountability as a framework of principles for evaluative purposes. An overview of the trajectory of government steering of higher education (Section 3.1) establishes that government has defined ‘steering’ progressively more sharply since 1997 through legislative change and policy developments in planning, funding and quality assurance. However, the optimal degree and boundaries of steering remain undefined and therefore open both to interpretation and negotiation.

Amendments to the Higher Education Act since 1997 (Section 3.2.1) indicate to the Task Team a defensible intention by government to heighten the accountability of higher education institutions. Unfortunately, a preference for blanket application in these amendments, matched to inadequate consultation, has contributed to a sense amongst higher education institutions that government does not always strike a balance between principles of institutional autonomy and accountability and that government commitment to consultation is lacking.

The Task Team finds (Section 3.2.2) that steering through planning (institutional restructuring, programme and qualifications planning, student enrolment planning) has also most commonly highlighted a contested autonomy-accountability balance. Institutions have faulted government for a planning approach that is overly centralised, bureaucratic, opaque, generic and guilty of translating the public good into selective performance targets. These factors have been problematic for institutions in the restructuring process (2001 onwards) notwithstanding their inprinciple support for transformation of the higher education landscape. In addition, 2002-03 government decisions about institutional programme and qualifications mixes in the absence of due framing policy, factual data, quality criteria and academic expertise invoked concern about incursions on academic freedom. Enrolment planning outcomes negotiated since 2007 between institutions and government give more hopeful signals for consultative planning in the interests of a single yet differentiated higher education system. Accountable system planning, in the Task Team’s view, requires enhanced communication and engagement between actors, especially on the part of government; proactive contributions to policy and implementation by institutions and the sector; proper information as the basis for planning decisions; and a balanced appreciation of the many ways in which higher education and academic freedom serve society.

In the case of steering through funding (Section 3.2.3), the Task Team appreciates that public funding is justifiably used to drive accountable behaviour by public institutions. Yet it is around issues of accountability by government that institutional concerns are greatest in relation to funding frameworks, means of funding allocation and general funding trends. They cite a form of financial steering which is removed from individual institutional needs. This exposes institutional core functions and the exercise of academic freedom to risks arising from decreasing subsidy, earmarked funds allocated on unclear criteria, and increased reliance on private funding sources. Specifically, there is concern that ministerial latitude to alter the definitions and values of public funding components, and to allocate earmarked funds in the absence of consultation, creates potential now and in the future for unaccountable funding decisions. The Task Team is clear that government must proactively explain its funding choices and be willing to engage in proper dialogue around these with higher education institutions.

The Task Team notes that steering through quality assurance (Section 3.2.4) differs from other forms of higher education steering in that it is regulated by an independent statutory body rather than the Department of Education and that it emphasises institutional accountability for quality while also developing that capacity. These factors are taken to inform an apparently wide sectoral view – shared by the Task Team – that quality assurance has posed no explicit danger to academic freedom and institutional autonomy up to now, despite its location close to the heart of academic judgements and decision-making. However, the Higher Education Quality Committee is subject to some suspicion on the grounds, for example, that it features as part of a set of statutory and bureaucratic arrangements for programme approvals which as a whole may limit autonomy and even academic freedom. The sector also cautions that steering through quality assurance could turn malign under certain conditions, such as an unduly heightened accountability drive or a shift away from a consultative steering approach. For the Task Team, a concern that substantive institutional autonomy be safeguarded in the presence of an external quality assurance dispensation is entirely valid. Both agency and institutions are therefore accountable for monitoring and sustaining an engaged mode of steering to support academic quality as an outcome of academic freedom properly exercised.

In making an overall evaluation of the regulatory environment (Section 3.3), the Task Team observes that, even if flagrant instances of government interference are hard to pinpoint, government’s steering of higher education has in recent years – most sharply between 2001 and 2004 – grown more directive, less consultative, and occasionally prone to hierarchical decree. Some modifications of the steering approach are recommended to enhance system development, system co-operation and system critique; to address negative forces at play in the regulatory environment (constrained capacity, weak co-ordination, system-change overload, market ideology and managerialist ethos); to deal with ongoing contested issues; and to consolidate principles of co-operation, academic freedom, substantive autonomy and democratic accountability. Emphasised are the need to distinguish between constitutional imperatives and higher education policy choices; a renewed commitment to genuinely cooperative means of policy-making and implementation; a mode of regulation that is multilateral, engaged and iterative; and increased attention by government to processes that facilitate negotiated outcomes with individual institutions as part of the planning and funding of an integrated yet differentiated higher education system.

Chapter 4 summarises the main findings, conclusions and recommendations made by this report for the consideration of the CHE (Section 4.2), as presented in its various sections and in the paragraphs above. The Task Team offers some suggestions (Section 4.1) for further indepth research to pursue important lines of enquiry beyond the bounds of the HEIAAF investigation.