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Minister hints at university law change in South Africa

Image: GovernmentZA [CC BY-NA 2.0], via Flickr


Corruption and mismanagement at universities indicate “clear” need for legal review, says Blade Nzimande

A rising tide of corruption and mismanagement at South African universities could prompt the government to propose legal changes in the coming years, the country’s higher education minister has said.

Blade Nzimande bemoaned the deteriorating state of governance in the country’s institutions of higher learning during a parliamentary committee meeting on 14 July.

“I do wish to indicate broadly, without being specific, that we are looking at possible future legislative changes to strengthen the system, to make the system run much better,” he told MPs on the portfolio committee for higher education, science and innovation. “It’s clear to us that there’s a need for legislative amendments.”

Common challenges

Since 2000, 16 independent assessors’ reports have been compiled in response to reported governance failures at South African universities, ranging from poor administration to academic fraud.

A few common challenges emerge from the assessors’ reports, Nzimande said. One is a lack of experience among university governance council members, which is blocking the effectiveness of these councils. A second challenge is that individuals investigated and even found guilty of transgressions in one institution can later find employment, even at senior levels, in other institutions.

He also said corruption is becoming entrenched and is now the norm in the supply chains of many institutions.

Autonomy in focus

While Nzimande kept mum on what legal changes might be on the table, his director-general of higher education, Nkosinathi Sishi, indicated to MPs on the committee that university self-governance is one of the areas under scrutiny.

Although university autonomy exists to insulate universities from external control, it must not be used to hide a lack of accountability, or to defend mismanagement in institutions, Sishi said.

Since the current South African administration is in its last year of office, it’s likely that the job of drawing up new legislation will pass to the next one, Nzimande told MPs. However, he said his department is committed to “place a foundation” for tackling the problems.

In addition to proposing law changes, the department wants to establish an ombudsman to act as an “early warning system” for governance issues, Nzimande said. It could also establish a dedicated branch to deal solely with governance problems.