Nzimande and the universities: A reply to Ihron Rensburg

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Alex Mashilo says there'll be no turning back in advancing transformation in higher education.

Public accountability and transformation are critical of our universities: Response to Professor Ihron Rensburg

The opinion piece by the University of Johannesburg's Vice-Chancellor and Principal Ihron Rensburg headlined "Regulatory overkill threatens academic autonomy in South Africa", published by the Business Day, 31 January 2013 refers. Rensburg's main question is whether all South African universities are in crisis. His answer is that he would "imagine so, given the recent legislative and policy actions of Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande" (see here).

By the Minister's "legislative and policy actions" Rensburg singles out "three sets of regulatory interventions": the Higher Education and Training Laws Amendment Act, which passed through Parliament, a set of proposed reporting regulations, and the establishment of an oversight committee on the transformation of South African universities. At the heart of Rensburg's thesis is the issue of institutional autonomy, which is not new.

In the mid-1990s when the transition towards what the African National Congress envisioned as a national democratic society - a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous South Africa in which there is a better life for all came into effect, various interests that sought to preserve white domination, colonial and apartheid privileges embarked on all sorts of manoeuvres, assumed different manifestations and sought to delimit the role of the democratically elected government. This conservatism became one of the ingredients that forged what could be characterised as a version of a new liberalism of a special type, special because of its flexible accommodation of conservatism and because its conservatism was modelled around the old South Africa as a colony of special type.

Unlike totalitarian conservatism which was still in denial, this version South African neoliberalism recognised that apartheid could no longer continue in its old form and in its entirety. It embraced democracy as liberal democracy in which its historic mission would be to defend the strategic essence of the strategic advantages acquired during and by those who were favoured by apartheid. In the same way as some from among the oppressed became agents of the apartheid system with others resigning from and turning against the national liberation struggle the neoliberalism of a special type also discovered its own agents from among the historically oppressed.    

In education the neoliberalism of a special type argued for an unbridled institutional autonomy as part of its liberal agenda to delimit the role of the democratically elected government. This agenda was particularly led by historically white institutions. There can be no doubt as to what their agenda was. Under apartheid, the historically white institutions enjoyed themselves and did not have any problems whatsoever with regards to autonomy. Once apartheid was defeated, they had to embark on everything in order to keep the "black government" out of the spheres of white control and to resist transformation, particularly redress and equity.

The slow pace of transformation which led to the establishment of the Oversight Committee on the Transformation of South African Universities as announced by Minister Blade Nzimande on 23 January 2013 is therefore completely no accident. Rensburg condemns the establishment of this committee along with other measures aimed at advancing transformation and ensuring good governance in universities, arguing that these legislative and regulatory amendments erode the institutional autonomy of universities. This is worrying.

What is deeply worrying is that Rensburg, indeed an honourable Professor, is economical with the truth in trying to portray the image that there have been many legislative and regulatory changes by the Department of Higher Education and Training under Minister Blade Nzimande. The complete truth is that since 19 December 1997 when the Higher Education Act commenced it was amended annually for five consecutive years from 1999 to 2003. It was amended again in 2008, a year before the Department of Higher Education and Training as headed by Minister Nzimande was established. In the process there were regulations also adopted.

The process of legislative and regulatory changes in higher education and training between 2010 and 2012 is therefore not new. It is the same process that brought about the promulgation of the very Higher Education and Training Act, 101 of 1997. This is defined in the White Paper 3 of 1997, ‘A Framework for the Transformation of Higher Education', as a process that seeks to guide programmes and processes aimed at transforming the post-apartheid education system.

According to the White Pater, this process requires all hitherto existing practices, institutions and values to be viewed anew and re-thought in terms of their fitness for the new era, i.e. the era of the building of a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous South Africa in which there is a better life for all. This is the road in search of perfection under continuously changing conditions. This road includes changing our own actions where they do not lead to our intended destination.     

But worst of all about our Professor is that he personalises the changes against and reduces them to the role of one person, the Minister. Very interestingly, or perhaps on the contrary, he also points out at the role a public institution, the parliament, played in bringing about these changes. The Higher Education and Training Laws Amendment Act as an example that our Professor gives was indeed passed through parliament.

On we go. Rensburg concedes to the existence of a problem in universities. He writes that "Some universities are in serious crisis". "In the past few years", he continues, "six institutions had, or still have, administrators appointed". He labels as "Draconian" the measures "required at those institutions" which he says the Minister is now imposing "on all universities".

Well, for the benefit of a doubt our Professor might not have intended to say "Draconian measures required at those institutions" that are in crisis are now being imposed "on all universities". In other words he might not have intended to call for "Draconian measures". Probably he intended to accuse the Minister for adopting the so-called Draconian measures. He might have also wanted to pose a question of differentiation, his argument understood therefore in context as being that those institutions that are in crisis must be addressed according to a specific set of measures which must not be extended to or generalised on all universities. In any way he would still have been wrong in both cases.

In the first place, the measures that the Department of Higher Education and Training as led by Minister Nzimande, which the Higher Education Laws Amendment Act for example was passed not only through but also by parliament, are not "Draconian". These measures seek to strengthen the balance between the institutional autonomy of universities and public accountability. Public universities that are established and funded through state resources must not be allowed to become unaccountable private enterprises as liberals and neoliberals of a special type would like to argue.

After defining institutional autonomy, which is "with respect to student admissions, curriculum, methods of teaching and assessment, research, establishment of academic regulations and internal management of resources generated from private and public sources", and not as an unbridled universal phenomenon, White Paper 3 of 1997 turns on public accountability in no uncertain terms. It clearly states that:

The Principle of public accountability implies that institutions are answerable for their actions and decisions not only to their own governing bodies and the institutional community but also to the broader society. Firstly, it requires that institutions receiving public funds should be able to report how, and how well, money has been spent. Secondly, it requires that institutions should demonstrate the results they achieve with the resources at their disposal. Thirdly, it requires that institutions should demonstrate how they have met national policy goals and priorities.       

Note the phrases in bold: "answerable for their actions and decisions", not some; "and how well", not just how; "with the resources at their disposal", all and not excluding resources sourced from private sources; and "national policy goals and priorities", not just their individual mission statements. Summarised, Rensburg has a problem with public accountability. He argues that the "public" is confused with the state", in other words, thereby mistaking accountability to the public for accountability to the state. What is this if not itself confusion, especially unexplained?

In a democracy such as ours, national policy and priorities are set by democratically elected institutions of the state, for example the parliament and government, each in accordance with its defined set of separate but continuously connected powers, a theme we could address elsewhere at a convenient time. It is the public that elects these institutions of the state and approves of the mandate that they have. This is embedded in processes of public participation, involving consultation, and accountability, among other "checks and balances" of you like.

For example, universities are not allocated funds by an abstract public. It is the government as an institution or branch of the state that allocates funds to universities on behalf of the public. Conversely, it likewise has equal responsibility to enforce public accountability as formerly defined.      

As Karl Marx, who Rensburg quotes without telling us from which work, and I am returning to this in due course, cautions us in ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte', that "as in private life one differentiates between what a man thinks and says of himself and what he really is and does", at least two points relating to the essential character of our honourable Professor's attack on the Minister of Higher Education and Training reveal themselves. Rensburg subordinates public accountability to institutional autonomy, saying that he is striking a balance between the two. He also hollows out the state, which he equates to universities, of the role that it has to play in its relationship to the public and with universities.

Let us proceed to the question of differentiation. Rensburg would argue that the legislative amendments that came with the Higher Education and Training Laws Amendment Act lack differentiation, which means that they generalise measures that must be applied to institutions that are in crisis. Section 49A of the Higher Education Act as amended in 2012 adopts a differentiated approach on the intervention of the Minister.

There are six conditions differentiating the interventions that require intervention: financial impropriety or mismanagement, inability to perform functions, unfair or discriminatory or inequitable conduct, failure to comply with law, failure to comply with the Higher Education Act or certain conditions, obstruction to the Minister or person authorised by the Minister in performing a function in terms of the Higher Education and Training Act. Why would a university that is not involved or affected by any one of these conditions that leave much to be desired have the sort of the problem that Rensburg has? There would be something trivial if not sinister in such a university, unless proven otherwise.

In trying everything to avoid public accountability or subordinate it to institutional autonomy of universities, some if not all of the complaints in Rensburg's opinion piece end up contradictory if not abandoning the sense that they claim to represent. 

Rensburg writes that the powers of the independent assessor provided for in the Higher Education Act were not spelled out, which is true. He then condemns the spelling out of these powers, which is done under Section 45A of the Act as amended in 2012. In the first place it was under-development to provide for an institution without spelling out its powers and functions and how it must go about exercising them.  

Rensburg also writes that "Since 1994, student enrolments in universities have almost doubled without a concomitant increase in the academic staffing establishment. Instead, the administrative staffing cohort has expanded to enable universities to manage the reporting requirements imposed by an increasingly bureaucratised state concerned with administrative rather than substantive compliance".

To what extent does it make sense as our honourable Professor does to attribute a supposedly 18-years old problem, if indeed such exists, to three sets of regulatory interventions adopted only in "recent months"? The history of universities in South Africa predates 1994. Does Rensburg tell us that prior to 1994 the academic staff compliment was increasing or has he become one of those who are arguing that the pre-1994 period was better than the post-1994 period? Answers in the affirmative are inconceivable about our honourable Professor, who has been regarded by many, one included, as one of the progressive university managers we have ever had.

But the use of being regarded as such to argue things that are not progressive could erode that status and engender a new perception. Let alone the problematic content of the unfortunate opinion piece, Rensburg was not known before of the style of work involving the route he has undertaken instead of engaging directly with the with the Department of Higher Education and Training.

Let us conclude where our honourable Professor concludes. He refers us to the north of South Africa where he says "few universities can be said to offer outstanding higher education". The north of South Africa is a globally vast area. The scaring-type statement Rensburg makes must be literally incorrect. Often Zimbabwe, which our esteemed Professor does not mention per se as one of the countries located in South Africa's global north, is used as a scary tactic about the direction of things in South Africa. Up until now this too has failed to make sense.. The country he mentions in South Africa's global north is Margaret Thatcher's era Britain. This is where he quotes Karl Marx but all irrelevantly.

Rensburg writes that "Perhaps Nzimande should reflect on the damaging and ideologically driven corporatisation of universities under Margaret Thatcher and remember Karl Marx's memorable phrase: history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce". Is the Department of Higher Education and Training under Minister Nzimande driving corporatisation of universities? That is inconceivable! The threat embedded in the Professor's assertion has no material basis in validity, to say the least, although all progressive and revolutionary forces must not fold their arms.

There must be no turning back in advancing transformation in higher education. The opinion piece by our esteemed Professor should at least remind us that unbridled institutional autonomy can plunge our post-school education into crisis. By the way that is partly how many of the universities that are in crisis accrued it over the years and the pace of transformation has been slow, all as a result of the abuse if not misuse of autonomy to block public accountability. For this unintended reminder let us thank our Professor.   

Written by:  Alex Mashilo

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  • Alex Mashilo is former student leader with background participation in legislative transformation in the mid-1990s, current YCLSA Deputy National Secretary. This article was published on