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University of Fort Hare vice-chancellor Professor Sakhela Buhlungu decries erosion of university autonomy, academic freedom. Msindisi Fengu investigates…

Decision-making on fees and their relationship to budgeting is one area of university autonomy that has been eroded to a considerable degree over the past 10 years, according to University of Fort Hare vice-chancellor Professor Sakhela Buhlungu.

Buhlungu was delivering the 57th TB Davie Memorial Lecture at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in August.

Buhlungu said fee-setting is the domain of university councils, but since 2016 it was taken away by the central department—the Department of Higher Education, Science, and Innovation.

It was at the height of #FeesMustFall that a decision had been taken by the government to cap fees and prohibit increases.

“As a result, fee increases are set by the minister and all public universities have to work within these parameters. What is amazing is that there has been no public debate on this,” Buhlungu said.

Reporting mechanism

Buhlungu said one of the paradoxes of the democratic dispensation for higher education is the growing bureaucratic burden on universities.

Although there are very good reasons for keeping universities accountable, he said, the amount of reporting has two main implications.

“The one is that the report imposes a huge administrative burden on institutions to produce reports, many of which do not get read or processed after submission,” he said.

Buhlungu said it is not uncommon to receive requests for information previously provided, such as the annual report submitted in June each year.

Add to these requests for submissions to other bodies such as the portfolio committee on higher education, the Public Protector, the Commission for Gender Equality, and the South African Human Rights Commission.

“It is worth noting that virtually none of these requests have been about academic freedom or autonomy of the university,” Buhlungu said.

He said the second implication of increased demands for reports is that it can be a Trojan Horse for micromanagement and therefore incursions into institutional autonomy.

“It has happened that a group of students who are not happy with their course marks will write to the national department and the following week a request for a report will land on my desk. There are numerous more serious cases one can cite,” he said.

Buhlungu said the increased reporting and accountability mechanisms, necessary as some of these are, have not helped the cause of academic freedom and university autonomy.

“Instead, they have elements reminiscent of the school inspector system of old.”


Buhlungu made four propositions on academic freedom and autonomy. He said these are based on his experience working in the higher education sector for the past 30 years, but most importantly they have been shaped by his work at UFH since 2017.

Matter of context

First, in the public higher education sector, academic freedom and institutional autonomy were shaped by context.

“They mean slightly (but at times vastly) different things to different institutions because of these institutions’ different sociopolitical contexts and histories. Thus, we should allow the diversity of experiences in the higher education landscape to shape our understanding of academic freedom.”

This, Buhlungu said, also means that the enablers and the threats to these freedoms will vary from one institution, region and country to another.

Futile exercise

Second, in the current period, striving for academic freedom and institutional autonomy in one university is a futile exercise.

“Yet in the current context the public higher education system is extremely fragmented as institutions and their leadership increasingly retreat into an inward-looking and competitive posture. It is my considered view that university vice-chancellors can do much better by finding common cause in defence of these freedoms.”

This also included standing up when a dean of faculty at a former black university was murdered in cold blood for taking a stand in defence of the integrity of academic qualifications.

Tick-box reporting

“Thirdly, in the last decade or so, we have witnessed serious incursions into, and erosion of, academic freedom and institutional autonomy in the public higher education sector.”

These included the increasing burden of bureaucratic “tick-box” reporting and the encroachment on the powers of university councils.

“Finally, in the global age, the impulse to intervene and set limits to academic freedom and autonomy is present among all state officials, regardless of their well-meaning intentions and parameters set by legislation,” he said.

How UFH lost autonomy

Buhlungu said state officials and university leaders should learn from the catastrophic consequences of state control for UFH through the Extension of University Education Act of 1959 and the annexation of the university to the Ciskei Bantustan in 1981.

The intentions of the act were revealed soon after the apartheid government came into power in 1948.

The introduction of Bantu Education in black schools was followed by the tabling of the bill in Parliament.

In 1977, the University of Transkei was established as a college of UFH and a few years later it became an independent institution.

UFH was handed over to the former Ciskei when it was granted independent status in 1981.

Buhlungu said UFH was a shadow of its former self—that vibrant and racially diverse institution that had experimented with academic freedom and autonomy during its first 43 years of existence.

“The period between 1959 and 1992 saw a consistent destruction of the institutional and academic fibre of Fort Hare and the diminution of its standing in the South African higher education sector,” Buhlungu said.

After 1994 university administrators faced frequent and often violent student and staff protests which rendered the institution extremely unstable.

The vice-chancellor said the ungovernability of the late 1980s spilled over into the democratic era as expectations of employees and students continued to rise while the resources base was shrinking.

Current UFH

Buhlungu said that when he joined UFH on 1 February 2017, having left UCT before completing a five-year, fixed-term contract, people asked him whether he would have taken the job of vice-chancellor had he known what awaited him there.

He said he still does not have an answer to that question. “Indeed, I often ask myself: did I accept a poisoned chalice at UFH? Again, I have not formulated an answer yet!”

However, the six and a half years at the helm of UFH had provided invaluable insights on issues of academic freedom and its handmaiden, institutional autonomy.

When he arrived at UFH, he said, the university was incredibly unstable and fragile, with power structures that generally did not put a premium on matters of academic freedom and autonomy.

“The university I inherited suffered severe resource constraints, but it was not the poorest in the country.”

Vested interests

Buhlungu said he did not have much insight into the web of vested interests that lurk in the shadows every time there is unrest and protest action. Many participants were known to the university authorities, the media, and the general public.

“However, there are many others who operate behind the scenes, using money and promises of positions of power to ensure that the institution is in perpetual crisis. In other words, it is common for legitimate grievances to be turned into weapons against the university and its administrators, regardless of the reputational harm that such chaos causes.”

In these circumstances, Buhlungu said chaos becomes currency for delegitimising management and established policies for the purposes of ensuring the capture of the institution by vested interests.

“Networks of people with vested interests operate from outside and within the institution, often using strategic positions in operational, management and governance structures.”

Their actions served to:

  • Derail the operation of the university as a space of teaching, learning and research; and
  • Instead put in place infrastructures of predatory accumulation.
  • He said efforts to end chaos and stabilise the university must necessarily entail the dismantling of these infrastructures.
  • “I have used the metaphor of heart surgery to capture this. A heart surgeon has to cut the body open to operate on the heart of a patient. Open-heart surgery is painful, bloody and unpleasant.”

But, he said, it is the best way to address a heart problem with a high prospect for success.

“The same goes for uncapturing institutions.”

This article originally appeard on Daily Maverick and is published with permission.

Msindisi Fengu is an International Relations enthusiast and multi-awarding-winning senior investigative journalist.

By Editor