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‘Academic freedom and institutional autonomy not a cover up’

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Picture: Armand Hough / African News Agency (ANA) / Taken on September 25, 2018 – University of Free State Vice-chancellor, Professor Francis Petersen speaks to the Cape Argus on the challenges higher education faces. The concept of institutional autonomy allows universities to define their own academic programmes, curricula, and admission criteria, the writer says.

By Francis Petersen

Around the world, universities are regarded as important institutions for the development of individuals, societies, and economies. They have a vital role to play as centres of innovation, research, dissemination, and application of knowledge, contributing towards finding sustainable solutions to the world’s many complex and interrelated challenges.

Universities are also unique institutions with intrinsic characteristics that differentiate them from other organisations, councils, or structures found in the public, private, and business sectors. These intrinsic characteristics, however, do not make them different in terms of governance, ethical leadership, and the proper operational functioning as a public institution with social legitimacy.

Universities’ academic freedom and autonomy

One of the key characteristics that sets them apart, and which constitutes a vital prerequisite for fulfilling their society-focused role, is academic freedom. This refers to the space that is provided to academics and researchers to explore new ideas, engage in rigorous research, share their findings, and express opinions that are fact- and evidence-based, without fear of censorship or reprisal. Another cornerstone of a university’s role and function – one that goes together with academic freedom – is institutional autonomy.

Institutional autonomy grants universities the authority to govern themselves through their leadership structures, usually in the form of councils and senates made up of democratically elected members of staff, alumni, members of the student representative council, and other stakeholders. The concept of institutional autonomy also allows universities to define their own academic programmes, curricula, and admission criteria. Although universities can take heed of the advice of government, the private sector, and industry when making their academic decisions, this advice should never be seen as taking instruction. However, the Council on Higher Education, which is a statutory body, ensures that these academic programmes satisfy the necessary and robust quality requirements through appropriate accreditation processes.

Universities also have financial autonomy, which amounts to the right to manage their financial resources independently. This includes generating revenue through tuition fees, research grants, donations, and other third-stream enterprises, as well as the freedom to allocate funds according to institutional priorities, which include developing infrastructure and facilitating and supporting academic programmes. Its autonomy allows individual universities to develop an own unique institutional culture, based on the values it subscribes to, underpinned by excellence, inclusivity, fairness, and integrity.

Framework for accountability

Academic freedom and institutional autonomy do not, however, absolve universities from accountability. There are several measures in place that govern and oversee the conduct of South African universities’ leadership and the ambit of their institutional operations, ensuring ethical conduct and adherence to principles and regulations.

First, a clear regulatory framework is created through legislation – in particular through the Higher Education Act, which clearly sets out the role, responsibilities, and governance structures of universities, including their establishment, registration, and accreditation. As public entities, South Africa’s universities are accountable to and work very closely with the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET). The DHET is responsible for formulating and implementing higher education policies and oversees the entire sector.

Another statutory body established by the Higher Education Act, is the Council on Higher Education (CHE), whose primary role is to promote quality assurance in higher education. The CHE is responsible for accrediting new programmes, conducting audits to assure institutional quality, and advising the Minister of Higher Education on matters relating to the sector. The minister him/herself also has considerable powers to intervene in the running of a university or if a university is not being governed correctly, which includes placing it under administration when called for.

There are also several quality councils to oversee specific fields of study, such as the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA), which guides the operations of universities’ health sciences faculties, the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) for engineering faculties, and the South African Council for Educators (SACE) doing the same for faculties of education. Universities may also be requested to appear before the Parliament Portfolio Committee (PPC) on Higher Education to report on particular institutional issues.

This financial autonomy is strongly guided and governed by university councils and council subcommittees, rigorous internal and external audit processes, and regular reporting to the Department of Higher Education and Training.

Apart from this very comprehensive external regulatory framework that has been put in place, each university’s leadership is also guided by its own internal institutional governing structures, policies, and regulations. Measures to ensure compliance normally take the form of provisions for whistleblowing, hotlines to report corruption and other transgressions, and regular internal audits, overseen by the audit and risk committees of council.

Subject to public scrutiny

It is therefore clear that measures to ensure universities’ accountability are plenteous – and on par with those found in the private and business sectors. But there are additional factors that govern their conduct. Since universities are public institutions funded by the public purse, they are also subject to public scrutiny. Citizens can and should put pressure on universities to adhere to the strictest requirements of good governance, ensuring that they are responsible stewards of public funds. The freedom to pursue knowledge can never absolve universities of their duties towards the broader community. It is for this very reason that universities issue annual reports that are not only presented to government but are also open for public perusal.

As is the case with all forms of public service, a delicate balance needs to be struck – with universities embracing their public service role, while at the same time being kept in line by the very members of public they serve. A vital prerequisite for this relationship is public trust and social legitimacy. Globally, there seems to be a disconcerting decline in respect for evidence and advice from subject-specific experts, as the political sphere is in many ways becoming increasingly anti-intellectual.

Unfortunately, emotion and personal belief have often been shown to carry more weight than objective facts and evidence in terms of influencing public opinion, as we seem to be drifting away from a general respect for the evidence-based research that should inform policy and decision making. It is vital that universities make a concerted effort to restore public trust.

They can only do so by becoming increasingly involved with the communities that surround them, using their core business of teaching, learning, and research to work with communities to co-create innovative, sustainable, and workable solutions to the issues that confront them. Public trust should also extend to universities’ financial and operational management, and it is therefore imperative that universities adopt a culture of transparency, where administration, decision-making processes, and financial records are all open to scrutiny.

Producing the next generation of ethical leaders

There is another aspect that heightens universities’ accountability even further. And that has to do with the fact that universities’ role and mandate is not only to produce workers for the job market, but also to cultivate responsible citizens, some of whom will go on to become our next generation of ethical leaders. If we do not uphold the strictest standards of ethical conduct, and specifically in university leaderships, we erode the very fabric of our being and cast doubt on our own right of existence. Universities should be microcosms of an ideal society, embracing values such as diversity, equity, fairness, and social justice. Our students and staff should not only experience these values as they participate in our teaching and learning offerings and research endeavours but should also see them reflected in our policies and in our institutional processes – which include the way we expose and address unethical behaviour.

It is important to note that we should strive to be an ideal society – not an idealistic one where no one makes mistakes, and nothing ever goes wrong. When mistakes are made and lines are overstepped, justice must be done and seen to be done in a clear and transparent manner.

Academic freedom and institutional autonomy remain important cornerstones of universities’ identity and are vital for their effective operation. But it is important that they are counter-balanced by an equally rigorous emphasis on accountability – enabling universities to truly fulfil their role of supporting societal development. They must be the antithesis of corruption, exposing unethical behaviour and strengthening our democracy, the pursuit of social justice, and commitment to academic excellence for the public good of all of society.

Prof Francis Petersen is Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Free State

This article was first published on UFS