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All varsities finally account to Nzimande

All varsities finally account to Nzimande

All varsities finally account to Nzimande

Bongekile Macufe

Johannesburg – Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande is one step closer to controlling the country’s 23 universities. The Higher Education and Training Laws Amendment Bill was this week approved by Parliament.

The bill will extend the powers of independent assessors appointed by him to investigate problems in institutions. On the assessor’s advice, an administrator can be appointed at a university to take over the management, governance and administration.

Nzimande will be able to dissolve the university’s council immediately after the administrator is appointed. And if he feels that an institution is going through financial difficulty, is being mismanaged or has failed to comply with any law, he can intervene.

The approval from Parliament comes despite reservations by opposition parties, universities and higher education bodies that the bill gives Nzimande too much power and undermines institutional autonomy.

But Advocate Ishmael Malale, chairman of the higher education portfolio committee in the National Assembly, this week defended Nzimande, saying the bill did not undermine university autonomy.

The bill would empower the minister to deal with financial maladministration and any sort of mismanagement in institutions, said Malale.

“This is an act that seeks to deal robustly with corruption. It has nothing to do with university autonomy and academic freedom.”

He said institutions that were properly run would not have the minister intervening in their affairs or dissolving their councils.

Those who were opposing the bill had a “fear of the unknown”, were “territorial” and were not open to change, said Malale.

He added that if the minister intervened in a university without justifiable grounds, institutions were free to challenge his decision in court.

Opposition parties, universities and higher education bodies were not optimistic about the approval of the bill. Higher Education SA – a body that represents vice-chancellors – said it was concerned about the changes to the bill.

The appointment of independent assessors, administrators and the intervention by the minister were of particular concern to them.

Jeffrey Mabelebele, acting chief executive of the body, said despite the bill being passed, the body would still approach the minister to discuss their concerns.

“We will find an opportunity to engage Parliament, [the] minister and other players to ensure our views prevail,” said Mabelebele.

North West vice-chancellor, Dr Theuns Eloff, said institutions were open to public accountability, but said the bill was “going too far”.

“This is not a shot in the heart that will kill you immediately, it’s a small poison. It’s a small step towards disempowering universities,” said Eloff.

He added that it was unfortunate that the bill was passed despite the “protest” by universities. “This one gives too much power to the minister as an individual,” added Eloff.

He said “tendencies” by the minister to include the bill will seek to turn institutions into government departments.

Cope MP Nqaba Bhanga this week accused Nzimande of being “obsessed” with power, behaving like an “apartheid minister” and wanting direct influence in the running of universities.

“He wants to impose narrow, ultra-left, maverick doctrine in the running of universities,” said Bhanga.

Department of Higher Education and Training spokeswoman Vuyelwa Qinga said Nzimande had no interest in running universities, had never been an apartheid minister, and would not know how they behaved.

“He is [not] interested in directly influencing their running, but rather to ensure that their autonomy, alongside accountability, [is] protected and adhered to,” she said.

She said Nzimande was not going to watch and allow university autonomy being used to frustrate national transformation.

“Neither will he stand and watch from the sidelines as that same ‘autonomy’ is used to hide mismanagement, bad governance and corrupt practices by the management and councils of some of these institutions,” added Qinga.

Source:  IOL News – 04/11/2012

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