A crisis of credibility

2011-01-24 00:00

AS part of its constitutional mandate to monitor quality at the country’s higher education institutions, the Council for Higher Education (CHE) regularly conducts large-scale audits of these institutions. The results of such audits constitute public information, assuring taxpayers that their money is being well spent in the country’s tertiary education sector. They are also invaluable to the members of a university community in providing an objective assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the institution, and feeding into planning for the future.

Preparation for these audits requires hours of many people’s time as documents on all conceivable aspects of the university’s research, teaching and other activities, are painstakingly gathered and made available to the audit panel. The panel members themselves invest considerable time in digesting all this information, as well as interviewing a wide range of academics and other university staff so as to gain a deeper insight into the functioning of the university under consideration. A great deal of work and critical thought goes into compiling the audit report and its recommendations.

The University of KwaZulu-Natal was audited by the CHE in the latter part of 2008. Members of the university community have been waiting for the release of the audit report. Only a deafening silence was heard, however, until November 2010 when a well-hidden item appeared on the CHE’s website stating that the UKZN audit report had been “withdrawn”. This bureaucratese can be easily translated into more accurate words: “suppressed”, “withheld”, or, in stronger language, “gagged”. The CHE has decided to consign to oblivion its entire audit report of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

The matter has now been exposed in the media, thanks largely to the efforts of reporters at the Mail and Guardian newspaper. The audit panel’s chair, Professor Martin Hall, has made known his unhappiness with this outcome and argued that in agreeing to gag the report, the CHE is complicit in suppressing important information that is legitimately required by the UKZN community and the public.


Background to the gagging

Why was the report, on which so many people had spent so much time and effort, consigned to the infamous File 13? In order to answer this question, it is necessary to reprise the issues — widely publicised in the media at the time in late 2008 —  around UKZN’s top management’s insistence on bringing disciplinary action against two professors in the university’s Faculty of Science and Agriculture. These two academics, professors Nithaya Chetty and John van den Berg, had attempted to bring before the university senate a document raising concerns about the exercise of academic freedom within the institution. This document had been drafted and ratified by the faculty, and the two professors had been tasked by their colleagues to take it to senate.

After several failed attempts to get the document discussed in a senate meeting, these academics openly expressed their own and their colleagues’ concerns about what many regarded as the erosion in freedom of expression within UKZN. To many, the suppression of the faculty “academic freedom document” seemed itself to confirm the existence of the very issues raised in its pages. And if further confirmation was needed, it was immediately provided when the two academics found themselves facing internal disciplinary procedures for, among other charges, “bringing the university into disrepute”.

The effective ban on discussing such controversial issues internally within the university extended to discussion of the issue within the Faculty of Science and Agriculture, the home faculty of the two academics. As was reported in The Witness at the time, a legitimate attempt by members of the faculty to hold a meeting to discuss the plight of their colleagues failed at the very last moment. The then dean (he has now left UKZN) was officially warned by UKZN’s employee and labour relations department, headed by Paul Finden, not to allow the meeting to proceed.

Not surprisingly, the CHE audit panel — then writing up their final report — commented on this sorry state of affairs at the university. It did so first in its verbal presentation in October 2008, which preceded the disciplinary action actually going forward against the two professors (although events were moving quickly in that direction).

This presentation was made to the whole university community, and was intended to give the members of UKZN feedback on the audit.

According to Hall, four out of 45 items in the verbal presentation dealt with the panel’s concern regarding “evidence of stifled debate about institutional matters and of debates conducted in ways which obfuscate rather than elucidate issues”. The panel strongly recommended that, rather than pursuing disciplinary action — and thereby following the trend that Jane Duncan of the Freedom of Expression Institute has termed the “rise of the disciplinary university” — concerted attempts be made to sort out the disagreements through internal discussion.


Vice-chancellor’s counterattack

As could have been predicted byanyone familiar with recent events at UKZN, top management ignored this recommendation and instead proceeded with the disciplinary action against the two professors.

Hall expressed his concern about this to the relevant CHE committee and his letter found its way into the public domain. Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, the UKZN vice-chancellor, apparently then argued to the CHE that the audit panel’s chair was biased against him, and insisted that the body suppress its entire written report.

In the view of most observers, this is a spurious argument. As Hall trenchantly states, he was but one member of a review panel, and it “stretches credibility to accept, as the CHE does, that any personal bias that I might hold could mesmerise an eight-member panel made up of senior academics and administrators from seven different South African universities and an independent auditor from Australia.”

Yet the ad hoc review committee appointed by the CHE to look into the vice-chancellor’s allegations of bias, chose to agree with Makgoba. It is disappointing, but hardly a surprise, to read in the Mail and Guardian that the chief executive of the CHE, Ahmed Essop’s comment when questioned about the make-up of the review committee, was that it had been appointed “after consultation with the vice-chancellor”. This was hardly a case of an independent body coming to an unbiased decision regarding the release of the report.

Interestingly, Essop also admitted to the Mail and Guardian’s reporter that the CHE had no process in place for dealing with a situation in which a university’s top management took issue with some aspects of a report and then wanted it withdrawn. Apparently the CHE had not anticipated a situation in which a thin-skinned vice-chancellor would attempt to have the report gagged because he or she did not like some of its findings.

This is surely the height of naiveté. What would be the value of audit reports in which the CHE becomes simply a praise singer for the top management of our universities?


Alternatives to managerialism

One aspect of the problem lies, I feel, in the enabling environment created by the increasing hold of managerialism on South African universities. Managerialism provides the space for top management to make use of legalistic process to stifle dissent within an institution. The individual who is critical of the direction in which the university is going, and attempts to engage with others in the institution as well as top management about this, finds him or herself in a parlous position.

At UKZN in particular, he or she may find themselves facing disciplinary action on the part of the university’s employee and labour relations department — not to mention the private law firms, kept on permanent retainer by university management, which take on such cases. Without very specific guarantees of what is internationally accepted as “academic freedom”, academics have little protection if they happen to fall foul of top management. Inevitably, a climate of fear is created.

How can we turn back the tide of managerialism in South African universities and begin to consider more inclusive ways of operating? One model that South African universities should seriously consider is the Collective Agreements (CAs) that many North American universities use as governing documents. These detailed statements of principle are agreed between the university administration and the academic staff, and both groups are then bound by the terms of agreement for a set period of time.

A clear statement of academic-freedom protections is included in these Collective Agreements. For example, members of Queen’s University in Canada agree in its governing CA that “Academic freedom includes the following interacting freedoms: freedom to teach, freedom to research, freedom to publish, freedom of expression, freedom to acquire materials”. In addition to carrying out research and teaching without censorship, it is specified that “Members have the right to freedom of expression, including the right to criticise the government of the day, the administration of the institution, or the [Queen’s University Faculty] Association”.

Importantly, this kind of governing agreement rests on the conception of the university as being constituted by all its members, not just its current management or its vice-chancellor (known in Canada as the university principal). A key question is thereby raised. Are the academics at UKZN simply “employees”, or are they regarded (as in the case of Queen’s University) as members of the institution? Why is it that, in South Africa, the interests of a particular university are often assumed to be coincident with those of its current vice-chancellor, as though he or she were the CEO of a private company?

It should be clear to all that, in the absence of such a Collective Agreement, dissenting academics in the increasingly managerialist and even authoritarian environment of some South African universities enjoy little protection in practice.


Implications for CHE

The CHE’s capitulation in suppressing the UKZN audit report on the request of the institution’s vice-chancellor is more than disappointing: it has set a terrible precedent. The public needs to ask themselves whose interests are being served by the suppression of the CHE report. Besides the fact that in bowing to UKZN’s top management in this way the CHE has done untold damage to its own credibility, the gagging of the audit can be viewed as a betrayal of UKZN’s academics and other staff — the people who in fact constitute the university. It is also a shameful waste of taxpayers’ money and a slap in the face to all those who spent hours of their time contributing to the audit.

Small instances of suppression have a way of snowballing into large ones. The original decision to close down discussion of a legitimate document, involving the institutional bullying of two academics, has now led to the withdrawal of an entire university audit. The “poison” at UKZN has sadly spread and is now infecting a national body tasked with conducting independent assessments of the country’s higher learning institutions.

It should be remembered that the university is a national, provincial and municipal asset. To add to its other woes, UKZN is virtually the only institution in the country that now does not have an independent audit report available for public perusal.

And as far as the Council for Higher Education is concerned, if it is to retain any credibility when it conducts university audits in the future, the decision of the ad hoc committee regarding the UKZN report must be reversed at once and the audit findings released to the university community and the public.

• Shirley Brooks was a member of the University of Natal and the University of KwaZulu-Natal for 11 and a half years. She was also a member of the Faculty of Science and Agriculture.

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