The Minister of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande, should withdraw the Higher Education Amendment Draft Bill, with immediate effect.
That’s according to Belinda Bozzoli, shadow minister of higher education and training, referring to a Draft Bill submitted to the Speaker of the National Assembly on Friday, after having been approved by Cabinet.
“The DA will be providing an in-depth response to the various and problematic components of this Amendment Bill in due course,” she comments. “But it is already clear that the Bill presents a series of extremely worrying proposals.
“It aims to increase the powers of the Minister himself to intervene in university matters of various kinds, particularly the two issues of transformation and of institutional breakdown. It would, for example, provide the Minister with the power to ‘determine transformation goals for the higher education system and institute appropriate oversight mechanisms’.
“The problem is not with transformative goals per se, but with the breadth and vagueness of the proposed intervention and the envisaged direct invasion by the Minister into university decision-making,” Bozzoli adds.
“In this case, it is not clear what goals the Minister will set, how they will be set, whether they will be legally binding and whether the Minister will use his other (expanded) powers under the Act to direct universities to act in particular ways, or even to dissolve councils should they not act in a particular way.
“In the case of institutional breakdown, the Minister’s powers to appoint administrators and assessors and to dissolve Councils have been broadened to include such criteria as ‘reasonable grounds’, rather than the existing objective legal threshold for this action; and he would have the discretion to take ‘any other appropriate action’ should he see fit to do so  – again boosting his powers.
“In our view, the draft Bill is yet another step in the Minister’s continued campaign of creeping state capture of higher education institutions,” according to Bozzoli. “Both transformation and institutional breakdown are matters which strong, independent and financially and socially responsible Councils should deal with. Oversight of Councils should vest in semi-autonomous bodies such as the Council on Higher Education and not in the hands of the state. If reforms in, and strengthening of, Council structures and CHE powers are due, this should be done without licensing further invasion by Ministers.
“It is ironic – if not tragic –  that the very Minister under whose watch university education has floundered, under whom one third of the sector is likely to declare bankruptcy in the next few months, and under whom turmoil, anger and instability prevail, should believe that further intervention by himself would offer a solution.
“The Bill will do nothing constructive in the current fraught situation in Higher Education. Indeed, instead of calming the university sector down, this Bill will inflame it further. It will divide universities, students and the public at a time of crisis. We do not need inflammatory proposals such as this. We need wisdom, considered action, a reconciliatory approach and sensible leadership.”