Withdraw the draft Higher Education Amendment Bill - Belinda Bozzoli

DA says it would give the Minister of Higher Education too much power

Nzimande should withdraw the draft Higher Education Amendment Bill immediately

The Minister of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande, should withdraw the Higher Education Amendment Draft Bill, with immediate effect.

On Friday the Draft Bill was submitted to the Speaker of the National Assembly 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, 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.

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. 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.

Clearly the Minister is finding himself under siege from a variety of quarters, including his own party, and is seeking to appear decisive, purposeful and present. But by submitting this Bill now, of all times, he has simply enhanced his reputation as a bully who is set on bringing universities under the control of the ANC in general, and himself in particular. 

The Bill is probably intended to act as a red herring, as it will help the government by diverting attention away from the real issue which is money. The financial shortfalls in the university sector, the Department made clear last week, run into the multi-billions. Minister Nzimande himself acknowledged, in fact, for the first time last week that the sector was experiencing a crisis, and that to survive it would need at least R30 billion per annum and rising over and above what it receives at present. 

The Minister should be spending 24 hours of every day trying to find this funding. He should be talking to his sister Departments, the Treasury, the President, the private sector, students, universities and a range of international partners, donors, sister universities, governments and the like, day in and day out. Instead, he is frittering away his time on a divisive Bill which has little chance of solving anything.  

Once again, the Minister’s actions demonstrate the degree to which he is entirely out of touch with the realities in the university sector, and shows up his sheer lack of concern for the real issues facing poor students and higher education institutions themselves today.

To this end, I will be writing to the Minister today urging him to put aside his bid for increased power, withdraw the Bill and focus his attention on finding R30 billion per annum for the next five years – something he should have been doing ever since he took the job of Minister. 

Issued by Prof Belinda Bozzoli, DA Shadow Minister of Higher Education and Training, 8 November 2015