Parliament – The Higher Education Amendment Bill narrowly passed in the National Assembly on Tuesday afternoon after the Democratic Alliance staged a walkout in a failed attempt to block the passage of the legislation through Parliament.
The bill, which, among others, sets fixed transformation goals and oversight mechanisms, imposes stricter oversight over universities’ spending of government subsidies, and gives the higher education minister greater powers to intervene in under-performing universities, raised concerns in academia that institutional autonomy and academic freedom could be affected.
Deputy Higher Education Minister Mduduzi Manana on Tuesday said this was not the aim of the bill.
“These amendments do not tamper with the institutional autonomy and therefore the integrity of our higher education institutions and the system as a whole will remain intact,” said Manana.
“The councils remains the highest governance structures of universities in South Africa and this will not change. All we are seeking to do is to strengthen accountability and ensure that where there are signals of faltering management and governance, early warning systems will be put in place.”
Democratic Alliance MP Belinda Bozzoli said her party opposed several clauses in the amendment bill, specifically those that gave the minister wider powers to intervene in university business.
“Today, with the failure of existing methods of fixing the dysfunctional universities, the minister seeks to expand his powers. The new bill has a clause which means that he will now only need to have ‘reason to believe’, rather than concrete proof, that intervention is necessary. It will become easier to suspend university independence, and more difficult to challenge such a decision in court,” said Bozzoli.
“The bill also proposes to give the minister new powers to issue directives to the [university] council for up to five years after the administrator leaves. This extends the period of suspension of university autonomy from two years to seven. We oppose this clause.”
After calling for a division, DA MPs left the chamber in the apparent hope that the National Assembly would not meet a quorum of 201 MPs to pass the legislation.
However, the legislation was adopted after 199 MPs voted in favour and five against it.
The bill will now be sent to the National Council of Provinces for concurrence.
African News Agency