Academic freedom in South Africa

Higgins on academic freedomOn December 11, my University of Cape Town (UCT) colleague Prof John Higgins will be holding the Cape Town launch of his new book, “Academic Freedom in a Democratic South Africa” (click on the picture to enlarge and to get details). I’ll certainly be attending, both to support John (a friend) and also because it’s a subject of great interest to me.

In my capacity as chair of the Academic Freedom Committee at UCT, I was approached by a local journalist for comment on some issues raised in this book. Because only a sentence or two (if anything) might survive the editing process, here’s the full list of questions and my answers, for those of you interested in this topic.

1.Do you think academic freedom is under threat in South Africa?
There are certainly implicit threats to academic freedom, and also explicit ones such as the Higher Education and Training Laws Amendment Act.

2.If yes, kindly give us a few reasons to support your answer
Attempts to control the possession and dissemination of information as in the Protection of State Information Bill is an implicit threat, as is the occasionally hostile reaction of the State to uncomfortable questions being asked of it, for example regarding topics such as the arms deal or Nkandla. The South Africa public might itself present a different sort of threat, in that political and socio-economic preoccupations sometimes appear to create a distinctly anti-intellectual climate, where demands for “ideological purity” can intrude on academic activity. Then, legislation such as the Act – regardless of whether this is the intent or not – allow the Minister to subvert university autonomy for overly vague and broad reasons, thereby putting universities in a state of perpetual probation, hardly conducive to freedom.

3.Do you think that the ANC’s policies on higher education seek to subordinate universities’ important decision making to the policies of government?
Whether they seek to do so is one question, whether they will serve to do so quite another. Regardless of the intentions behind these policies – which some certainly seem to think sinister – the policies (the aforementioned Act, and also potentially the eventual scope and power of the Ministerial Oversight Committee on Transformation) could certainly serve to subvert university autonomy.

4.Does this amount to curtailing “academic Freedom?”.
The State has legitimate interests in the role and functioning of public universities, so the universities cannot demand that academic freedom be defined without any concern for those interests. But the way in which government has developed and seeks to implement these policies – often with little or no discussion or negotiation with the universities – does add up to an intrusion on academic freedom.

5.The ANC has clearly said it wants universities to churn graduates who are competent in dealing with a modern economy. In other words, universities suddenly become instruments to achieve certain policies of government. Does this pose a threat to academic freedom?
Yes, certainly. While the developmental needs of South Africa certainly merit a focus on, for example, STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), this should not come at the expense of the long-term goal of producing strategic and creative thinkers of the sort that typically emerge from the liberal arts – history, philosophy and the like. A disproportionate focus on more practical fields might serve our interests in the short-run, but also serve to cripple academic enquiry and progress (and thus, freedom) in disciplines that are more esoteric.

6.Do you think the ANC’ s policies on higher education seek to control universities even more than what the National party did?
The comparison is unnecessary, and a distraction from the more important issue of whether the current government seeks to do so to a troublesome extent. This sort of comparison is perhaps emblematic of exactly the anti-intellectualism described earlier, in that keeping score in this way is good for headlines, rather than inspiring critical thought.

7.Do you think the Higher Education and Training Laws amendment Act is problematic for Academic Freedom? If yes, how so?
It could be problematic, depending on the extent to which the powers it allows for are used or abused. The Act makes it easier for government can place a university under administration, dissolving that university’s Council and assuming its powers. It sanctions more government intervention than is currently the case, and does so on grounds that are broad and poorly defined. We should have no objection to dysfunctional Councils being challenged or replaced, but if the Act allowing for this also allows, for example, Councils that aren’t “ideologically pure” to be replaced, then institutional autonomy and academic freedom are significantly threatened, and to an unacceptable degree. Further cause for concern regarding this Act is that key stakeholders, including Higher Education South Africa (Hesa), which represents the vice-chancellors and the Council on Higher Education (CHE) were not consulted in its drafting.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.