A controversial higher education amendment bill which might take away university’s autonomy and increase the powers of the education minister might become a law in a very short while.
Having been adopted by the Portfolio Committee on Higher Education and Training, the controversial bill which is just a step closer to becoming a law has been criticized to a law that will give the state excessive powers over universities and colleges.
The committee earlier this year hosted public hearings on the contentious bill amid fear that the proposed changes to laws governing tertiary institutions would put the autonomy of universities at risk. Though the bill will be considered in Parliament in two weeks, critics from the academic world and political parties have joined in the call for its withdrawal
The bill, if passed into law, will be expanding the powers of the Minister of Higher Education and finally destroy the already severely weakened principle of university autonomy.
Through it, the minister will have the power to determine transformation objectives and put appropriate mechanisms in place to ensure the objectives are met.
It also allows the minister to change processes, procedures and mandates of universities and other higher education institutions.The minister will also be empowered to ensure compliance with state transformation policies and related legislation such as employment equity in the higher-education sector, it said. University councils and vice-chancellors had to be held accountable.
Among critics of the proposed amendment bill is the Democratic Alliance who pledge to oppose the bill in the National Assembly saying it expands the Minister’s powers to issue binding directives to universities and to put universities under administration.
According to DA’s MP Belinda Bozzoli, the party’s and higher education spokeswoman, the bill is a major threat to the university’s autonomy and the party would do its best to oppose it.
“Universities soon will be unable to fulfill their obligations towards the Constitutional principle of academic freedom as the state intervenes relentlessly into their domain “
“It will provide the minister with unprecedented powers to force universities to offer TVET courses, even if they are not equipped to do so,” she said, referring to technical and vocational education and training.”
“In some clauses, the minister is simply given a blank cheque to intervene at will … the bill will not make a significant contribution towards solving the chronic problems in the university sector and to this end the DA cannot be party to the minister’s quest to increase his powers. The bill should be of concern to us all,” Bozzoli added.
Critics say no doubt the bill will deal with student and staff dissatisfaction, to some extent, by providing for the development of transformation plans for universities by the minister of higher education in consultation with the Council on Higher Education, the bill would in no way attend to the most important issue facing the sector — funding of students and universities. Those are being dealt with elsewhere.
However, the Council on Higher Education, an independent statutory body responsible for advising the government on all higher education policy issues, threw its weight behind the amendment bill, saying it will to make institutions of higher learning more accountable.
Supporting this also, is the Higher Education Transformation Network who during the public hearing said the bill will in addition to other necessary things, regulate the financial accountability of higher learning institutions.