Why state intervention is needed in our universities

Rhodes>Perspective>2013 Archive

Blade Nzimande

Minister says for some institutions 'autonomy' more important than right of students and staff to be protected from unfair discrimination

Dr Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education and Training, CEPD Solomon Mahlangu Lecture, June 10 2013

The Imperative for Accelerated Transformation in South African Universities


Members of the Mahlangu family

Paul Kgobe, Director of CEPD

Members of the CEPD Board and Staff

Others (VCs? Senior management of DHET, etc)

Academics, students, comrades



It's really a great pleasure to present this 2013 Solomon Mahlangu Lecture, a lecture that has been held annually since the first such lecture, delivered by the then Deputy President, Ms Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka in June 2006. I myself have had a long association with the CEPD as Chair of the Board of Trustees for many years.


The CEPD is one of the key institutions established by the democratic movement in the early 1990s to help to develop policy for the impending democratic dispensation. I am happy to see that it still continues to play an important role in supporting our education system through research and promoting public dialogue on education and training policy.


It is very appropriate that such a lecture on education and training policy should be dedicated to the memory Solomon Mahlangu, the young hero who forfeited his education and gave his life so that we may enjoy ours. The Mahlangu family has been represented at all these lectures and I would like to welcome them here again today.


The CEPD was responsible for coordinating the development of one of the key documents in our educational history, the ANC's 1993 Policy Framework for Education and Training, the so-called ‘Yellow Book'.  This year marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of the Yellow Book and the CEPD has republished the Yellow Book - looking exactly as it did 20 years ago - and it has copies here today. I would urge you to get a copy and reread it. Although it has become dated in some respects, the principles set out there are still as relevant today as they were in 1993.


It sets out various general principles for South African education and training that are as valid today as they were 20 years ago. These include, among others, the state's central responsibility for the provision of education and training, non-racialism, non-sexism, democratic participation, redress of historically derived inequalities, as well as horizontal and vertical mobility (i.e. articulation) between various parts of the system. 


The Yellow Book also emphasised that the education and training system should be ‘planned as part of a coherent and comprehensive national social and economic reconstruction and development programme, including a national strategy for the development of human resources, and the democratisation of our society.'


Role of Universities in National Development

It is this issue of the role of the education and training system, and more specifically the universities, in national development and the development of human resources, that I want to consider now. Higher Education has a crucially important role in contributing to SA's national development goals and transforming our country for the benefit of all of its people and not just of a minority.

It also has an important part to play in contributing to meeting the needs of SADC and Africa as a whole. Universities are crucial in the production and dissemination of knowledge and skills (including, very centrally, thinking skills). This function is crucial for the development of our economy and our social, political and cultural life.

Universities are one of the central institutions for the development of new knowledge and skills and for undertaking innovation which is becoming an increasingly important function of modern economies. The work universities do is vital to ensuring that we develop citizens able to live in and contribute to a productive, well-functioning and relatively contented society.

Universities should also see themselves as an important component of the post-school education and training system, a system that includes colleges, adult education institutions, regulatory bodies, the Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs), and workplaces in which training takes place. Universities should not only train educators and managers for the other post-school institutions, but also seek to develop different types of collaborative partnerships with them.

These partnerships could, for example, be around harmonising curricula to facilitate access to higher education for FET college graduates or involve tripartite arrangements with SETAs and employers to expedite work-place training for students.

University academics are well placed to critique our post-school system, its aims, its functioning, its role in human development and its relationship to the economy and society. Academics and students, especially post-graduate students, have an important role to play in researching and analysing the post school system, evaluating how it is functioning and whether it is making progress in achieving its objectives. They should also engage intellectually in the policy debates around the education and training system as a whole to a greater extent than is the case now.

Such work does take place in universities and has been increasing in recent years, but there is still a long way to go before the entire post-school system, including universities, work in such a way that all possible synergies between them are maximised.  A close cooperation and collaboration between all post-school institutions can make an important contribution to human resource development and to a skilled and educated population.


Development Priorities

Development can mean different things to different people and the question is: what are the main development challenges at the current stage of our history? And also, what should be the role of universities in meeting them?

I believe that South Africa's most important objective at present is to overcome the triple challenge of unemployment, poverty and inequality.  To do this we need to grow our economy. I refer here not only to the formal economy that must grow and absorb millions more into relatively secure employment. But we must also recognise that millions of our people still make a living outside the formal economy and that this situation is likely to continue for years before the informal economy shrinks enough to become irrelevant.

In this struggle to eliminate the scourges of unemployment, poverty and inequality, all our institutions must share the burden, be they government departments, educational institutions, health-care facilities, trade unions, businesses, religious groupings, political or civic organisations. Universities, as educators of our future leaders and professionals have a particularly crucial role to play.

They play an equally important role as institutions producing research and innovation, creating the knowledge that helps us to understand and to shape our societies and our environment. There is virtually no field of knowledge that cannot contribute to tackling the triple challenge: natural and social sciences, the humanities, public administration, business management, medicine, accounting, law, the arts, and, of course, education.


Transformation Oversight Committee

When we talk about transformation we should talk, above all, about changing our country to deal with the triple challenge. We do not only need economic growth per se, but we need to ensure that it takes place in such a way that we progressively eradicate unemployment and poverty and overcome inequality (and I include here, discrimination which is largely a reflection of inequality of one kind or another, for example resources or power).


The term ‘transformation' is not a very precise one. It has commonly come to mean the elimination of discrimination based on race, gender, disability, religion, sexual orientation, and so on. After a particularly ugly racist and sexist incident at the University of the Free State in 2008, the then Minister of Education, Ms Naledi Pandor appointed a committee to Ministerial Committee on Transformation and Social Cohesion and Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education.


The report of this Committee recommended the establishment of a Transformation Oversight Committee and I have now established one. The Committee's terms of reference specifically assign it tasks associated with eliminating unfair discrimination and promoting social cohesion.

Those very same terms of reference recognise that this is a rather restricted definition of the term transformation. It explicitly excludes the wider - and more comprehensive - meaning of transformation in the context of universities. It states that:

... the full transformation of the university system cannot be tackled by this committee. Such transformation involves the improvement of the quality of teaching and learning; the elimination of weak administrative systems, especially at historically disadvantaged universities; the elimination of discriminatory practices based on gender, race, class and historical imbalances; the provision of adequate infrastructure so that all universities can adequately meet their fundamental mandates of teaching, learning, research and community engagement in the context of social cohesion; the expansion and improvement of research throughout the system; the expansion of access to university education to many more students; and so on. Transformation in this broader sense must perforce be the aim of the entire system of governance and management at the national and institutional levels, and is beyond the scope of this Oversight Committee.


So, although the role of the Oversight Committee is a very important one, its scope should not be understood as embracing the totality of transformation.  Nonetheless, the Committee's task is a very important one as all those who have been victims of unfair discrimination will readily recognise. Such discrimination is hurtful to individuals, causes them distress, undermines their happiness and self-confidence, violates their basic human rights and is destructive of social cohesion.


Nonetheless, the establishment of the Transformation Oversight Committee has been criticised by sections of the university community. This criticism has largely been on the basis that the Committee undermines university autonomy - in other words that it may prevent autonomous universities from discriminating. Maintaining the right of university managers to ‘autonomously'  hold sway over their institutions  autonomy is, apparently, according to some, more important than the rights of students and staff to be protected from racist, sexist or other forms of unfair discrimination.

And according to the critics, it is much more important than the right of the elected government to ensure that the spirit of the constitution is adhered to or that the rights of the majority of citizens are protected. I will come back later to what I believe is the motivation for such criticism. Meanwhile, I expect the Oversight Committee to resolutely and energetically tackle the challenges of eliminating discrimination and promoting social cohesion in our universities.

Transformation beyond the Oversight Committee

Transformation in the broader sense includes the elimination of discrimination, but as the terms of reference of the Oversight Committee states, it includes a lot more. Transformation in its broader sense may well be beyond the scope of the Oversight Committee, but it is definitely not beyond the scope of my Ministry or of the Department of Higher Education and Training. In fact, it is pretty well the essence of its scope of responsibilities.

Historically, we come from a system which had inequality at its heart and we inherited a very unequal social structure and also a very unequal university structure.  The universities were part of the repressive and racist political system of which black people were the primary victims. As victims, they led the struggle for democracy and many made huge sacrifices for the overthrow of apartheid and the establishment of a democratic dispensation.

Democracy has of course benefited all South Africans to some extent and provided formal, legal and political rights. A significant number have benefitted economically. However, the truth is that for millions of people - the urban and rural poor - a lot more still needs to bevdone despite huge improvements brought by the ANC government.

Our people have elected a government that they legitimately expect should prioritise their interests and create the conditions that will allow them to improve the quality of their lives. One of the most important ways of doing this is through the provision of adequate, high quality education and training opportunities in well-functioning institutions.

When we think of transforming universities we need to think about the entire university system and not just of individual institutions. Although we have made some progress towards the transformation of higher education, probably our biggest failure since 1994 has been our failure to ensure that the historically black universities, especially the rural, former bantustan universities are given significantly more resources and invest in improvement of infrastructure, governance and quality.

These should by now have become institutions that we can be proud of and that provide an education - and especially an undergraduate education - to their students of a quality that is equal to that of the best universities. I am afraid to say, it appears that the quality of education and the conditions under which students and staff live and work or study has actually deteriorated at some - although not all - of these institutions.


This is clearly an injustice towards those students, almost all of them black students from the poorest rural communities. And it is the duty of the state - through the provision of resources and through other interventions - to ensure that these universities function optimally. The state must also realise that such interventions are most effective when it works together with other stakeholders with similar interests.

In my experience, very often the reasons that universities - and not only the rural universities' - fail to perform at optimum levels has to do with corruption. I should say that corruption is not necessarily because of corrupt leaders, but is at times because of weak leadership and systems that opens the doors to the corrupt appropriation of university resources by others because of a lack of proper controls.

Let me give you just a few of the worst examples that we have found. At one university that was placed under administration, a forensic audit instituted by the Administrator discovered large numbers of blank diploma and degree certificates in the offices of university employees. It can only be assumed that these were meant for the manufacture and sale of false qualifications. This is only the worst of the audit findings which indicated corruption, fraud and maladministration in various areas including student admissions and procurement. 


Another university had over 90 bank accounts with a number of different signatories. Clearly no one had control over how the university's funds were being used and the university had to be bailed out by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) on more than one occasion.


Management breakdown more generally was also evident - as identified by the Independent Assessor and then confirmed by the Administrator. After these investigations, the universities were able to take disciplinary measures to clean up the mess and conserve resources so that they could be used for improving the quantity and quality of education.


A well-publicised incident involved the Council of a university - a Council from which a number people had resigned because they were unhappy with the way that it was functioning. The Council was insisting that it wanted to appoint someone as Vice-Chancellor who had a fraudulent PhD certificate. There was obviously collusion between the leadership of the Council and the aspirant Vice Chancellor. This situation, which could have had a seriously negative effect on the reputation of our entire higher education system, was only averted through government intervention.


The Higher Education Act always allowed for the Minister to appoint an independent assessor from a list of suitable persons identified by the Council for Higher Education. The Assessment made could lead to the appointment of an Administrator to temporarily take over the functions of the Council or the university administration or both.


Although the Act allowed some interventions to take place, its effectiveness was greatly reduced where an institution resisted the efforts of an Independent Assessor. Until the recent amendment to the Act[1], the legislation only allowed the Assessor to make a recommendation based on evidence presented to him or her during the investigation.


An Independent Assessor now has the right to enter any university building or other facility to conduct an investigation or assessment and to copy any documents relevant to the investigation. The Independent Assessor did not to have the power to call a witness to give evidence in the investigation, even if the person had information critical to the investigation. This is remedied in the Amendment.


The amendment also provides the Minister with the authority to issue a directive to University Councils to take action where there are serious allegations of financial impropriety or mismanagement and some other reasons such as being unable to perform its functions effectively, acting unfairly or in a discriminatory or inequitable way against someone to whom it owes a duty under the Act, or failing to comply with the law. Where the Council does not take action, and taking into account due processes, the Minister may appoint an Administrator.


As with the matter of the Transformation Oversight Committee, the main argument against the Amendment Act is the issue of university autonomy - also referred to at times as ‘academic freedom' in an attempt to make the criticism consistent with the constitution.


Motivations of those opposing transformatory initiatives


The main reason that my Ministry is taking action such as establishing the Oversight Committee or amending the Higher Education Act, is to increase the capacity of the state to intervene to  ensure that the interests of citizens and students, and especially those from less empowered sections of the society. In the same way, I believe, most critical voices come from those groups that want to reduce the role of the state, not only in education but in all aspects of our society. 


Some are probably looking to benefit from corrupt practices, but the opposition is far wider than this. The agenda is not primarily an educational one but a political one; it is an agenda that tries to roll back the state or at least keep it from encroaching on privileged interests. It comes mainly from liberal groups that believe that the role of the state should be restricted as much as possible.


I believe that at this stage of our development, this is largely a reactionary agenda that seeks to protect the privileged interests of the already advantaged. A minimalist approach to the role of the state in the economy and from educational and other institutions serving the public can only result in the distribution of power remaining much the same as it is at present.


Unless the state is prepared to intervene decisively in all spheres of public life - the economy, the education system, the health system, the research system, the police, the justice system, immigration and border control policy, international relations, and so on - to ensure that transformation takes place, then it will not.


The free market cannot transform South Africa to the benefit of the less powerful if left to its own devices because it inherently favours the strong and the privileged: the market does not favour "one person, one vote" as a democratic political system does, it favours a system of "one rand one vote".  And an educational system which has been part of a social structure designed to favour an elite will not change fundamentally without the decisive intervention of a democratic, people's state - even if the elite has partially changed its composition or colour.


In order for there to be a decisive shift in power relations and a shift in wealth distribution, the state must intervene. This means that for any real transformation to take place (& thus for democracy to actually benefit the working class, the urban and rural poor, small business people and most black professionals), the role of the state is crucial.


The role of progressive mass structures in transforming our universities

In honour and memory of Solomon Mahlangu, it is therefore important for all progressive student, worker and academic organisations in their individual institutions as well as in the higher education system as a whole to properly grasp the challenges and threats to transformation at this point in time.

Progressive forces are those which share the perspective that the main content of transformation in the current period is that of tackling the triple challenge of unemployment, inequality and poverty. Progressive forces also are those who understand that the market on its own is no panacea in tackling our problems, and that the idea of 'An Open Society' without fundamental reconfiguration of economic and political power in society in favour of the mass of our people is a facade.

It is also incumbent upon all progressive forces to understand that in society today we are faced with a liberal offensive which seeks to minimize the role of the state so that the market can continue to reproduce all the racial, class and gender inequalities and protect many of the privileges acquired during apartheid. As I said above some of the resistance to the legislative amendments on Higher Education are informed by this.


The liberal offensive is now also trying to use the courts to try and roll back transformation. Therefore for progressive forces to fold their arms when we are challenged in courts is a big mistake, as these court battles are about contesting transformation. For progressive forces our battles are not in the courts but through mass mobilization. We must effectively combine both our mass and state power to drive transformation and defeat all reactionary agendas. This is what Solomon Mahlangu died for, so that we can have a university system that effectively responds to our developmental needs.


It is very important that whilst we seek to transform the system as a whole it is important that institutional mobilization is intensified, except it must not be violent and destroy property. It must be progressive mobilization to confront racism, sexism, unfair discrimination, against 'sex for marks' practices. It must indeed be a struggle against outsourcing, labour brokering and casualisation of workers in our universities; just as it should be a struggle for a diversified social sciences curricula that does not seek to impose a totalitarian single idea that the market is the only solution to our problems and that the state is the enemy.

All progressive forces must ask themselves serious questions about their role in leading these struggles.


Therefore, the state is not the only actor that promotes transformation. Our government seeks to cooperate with various social groups and organisations that share its agenda of transforming South African society and also to engage others to see where we can find common ground. We really believe that , ‘Together, we can do more'.

And while we believe that there must obviously be limits on the powers of the state, we resist those who wish to see the state reduced to a protector of the status quo that is reluctant to intervene decisively in the interests of most of those who - like Solomon Mahlangu - have struggled for the (still incomplete) freedom that we now enjoy.

To conclude, I'd like to express my appreciation to the CEPD and to all of you for the opportunity to be here to express my thoughts. I am grateful for your attention and look forward to engaging with you on any questions and contribution you may have.

Source: http://www.politicsweb.co.za/politicsweb/view/politicsweb/en/page71656?oid=382214&sn=Detail&pid=71616