Academic Freedom, Institutional Autonomy and Public Accountability in Higher Education: a Framework for Analysis of the 'State-Sector' Relationship in a Democratic South Africa

Introduction and outline


In recent years, South African higher education discourse has been marked by various concerns and claims, on the one hand about a putative erosion of academic freedom and infringement of institutional autonomy on the part of ‘the state’, and on the other about perceived failures of public accountability on the part of institutions. The resulting tensions provide a clear indication that the optimal features of a relationship among all organs of state, geared to the needs of transformation under particular social conditions and in a specific global context, require fuller exploration. Those needs must be considered in the light of shifting socio-political conditions (nationally, regionally and internationally) over the last decade, of developmental and democratisation imperatives for South African society, and of the in-principle roles of state, government and sector in a postapartheid context.



That being the case, this paper will offer a framework within which an analysis of academic freedom, institutional autonomy and public accountability might be taken forward in the South African context. It presumes that those concepts should be treated as distinctive but mutually constitutive: though they may give rise to separable questions, they are most usefully considered as interlocking concepts; that is, differentiated, but intrinsically interconnected and complementary. Appropriate understandings of those concepts, it will be suggested, require a recasting of their appropriate reference and implications, with sufficient attention paid to the first term in notions of ‘academic freedom’, to the implications of the first term for the second in conceptions of ‘institutional autonomy’, and to the breadth of application of the first term in the under-explicated phrase ‘public accountability’, with its particular resonances for institutions of higher education in a society in process of giving increasing substance to recently won formal democracy.



The paper starts from a broad canvas and progressively focuses down, getting more purchase on the matters in contention at each step. That approach is adopted for two reasons. The first is strategic: since this analysis (following the remit of the research project commissioned from this writer by the CHE HEIAAF Task Team) is to theorise the context in which the current South African debate has developed, a broad canvas must be sketched in order to build a framework within which the controversy itself could later be examined. The second is principled: the research for this paper has been undertaken in full awareness of the fact that in South Africa, as often elsewhere, “debates and discourses about the specifics of institutional autonomy, academic freedom and public accountability is characterised by a strong tendency to invoke these as general principles or fundamental norms ...” (Du Toit 2004: 1), whereas those concepts are especially socially located and therefore demand examination within a nexus of specific historical and contemporary social, political and economic contexts.



In today’s South Africa, that nexus is even more than usually pertinent to an analysis of relevant debates. Its history of colonialism and apartheid, ended by the recent negotiated transition to democracy, left a legacy not only of extraordinary complexity and diversity in conditions and traditions across a higher education sector which democracy must now bring together: it also left a diversity in understandings, expectations and aspirations across the academy. When to that we add the corresponding legacy of complexity, diversity and extreme inequality which characterises the society which a newly unified higher education sector is now to serve – and also locate those national conditions in a globalising world – then the first premise of an analysis such as this is inescapable: any hypostasised understanding of academic freedom, institutional autonomy or public accountability advanced in the current South African context would be clearly tendentious and certainly quite useless as a basis for an enduring compact between the higher education sector and the society it serves. Whilst it is important not to fall into ‘South African exceptionalism’, since not all aspects of the country’s current challenges are unique, the particular constellation of challenges faced by this society, by its education and training systems and by the institutions which stand at the apex of those systems, requires an especially nuanced framework for any analysis of the legitimate scope and appropriate limits of academic freedom, institutional autonomy and public accountability as these relate to the academy. To build that framework will require excursions in this research report into political, social and economic theory where those are necessary to ground progress in unpacking debates about the steering of higher education. A theoretical review of the recent South African debate itself can unfortunately not be included here for reasons of space. Nor can a fleshed-out contribution to that debate, developed within the contextual framework that this paper seeks to build. However, some indication of the perspective, scope and content of such a contribution should become evident from the paper’s theoretical arguments and the examples used to illustrate their implications. An outline of the paper’s structure and content may be helpful.



The first step will be to clear the ground by distinguishing ‘state’ and ‘government’. Unless that key democratic distinction is made, progress in any debate on higher education’s steering is hampered in two ways. Attempts to understand at what point appropriate ‘steering’ of the sector becomes unacceptable ‘interference’ risk being vitiated by over-generalisation. It also becomes more difficult to give a proper determination of the circumstances in which inevitable divergences in view between the higher education sector and government can properly be characterised as illegitimate obstruction. With that distinction clarified in an opening section, the demands and opportunities which transformation presents to higher education can be approached in section 2.



Here, the challenges of the transformation project on the two trajectories of development and equity are first recalled, as the unavoidable tensions between these run through the matters to be addressed. This starting-point tables the (competing) conception(s) of the public good informing today’s South Africa and hence the complex role of the state in promoting it, through government, statutory bodies and public institutions. It will be argued that higher education is not just one of many areas relevant to the transformation project but that it has a very particular and especially important role to play. Consequently, just as conceptions of the public good are fundamental to relations among all bodies that make up the institutional state, so are they, necessarily and in specific ways, to contestation about academic freedom, institutional autonomy and public accountability in higher education. A theme of this section is that whilst growth and redistribution, as drivers of democratisation and equity, have been to the fore in recent years, there is a need to re-emphasise citizen and civil society empowerment as the third necessary component of transformation. The reason for that theme is twofold. Not only is a prioritising of empowerment claimed essential to giving formal democracy substance across society, it is also particularly pertinent to building a framework for reconceptualising contested understandings in the current national debate on higher education’s steering.

The importance of the academy for all three legs of transformation’s tripod is widely acknowledged in policy discourse. Policy practice emphasises the fact that two major factors in growth are the production of knowledge and the development of human capital, and that ‘equity’ requires the transformation of higher education as of other social institutions. Both considerations give power to steering’s elbow. But to emphasise that empowerment is a basic prerequisite to substantive equity and democratisation in fact valorises the constitutive features of the academy, giving it a key role in negotiations over the manner and direction of steering. The degree to which empowerment is emphasised and strenuously facilitated – alongside growth and the knowledge and skill it requires – is an important factor in how the public good in a new democracy is interpreted and endorsed by action. And whatever conception of the public good underpins transformation has direct implications for all contestation about the proper functioning of the academy and its steering.



However, those implications can only be adequately teased out if attention is given to the peculiar kind of social good that higher education is, with potential to drive reform as well as respond to it. Clarifying that question is the third task of section 2. To clear further undergrowth from the debate, higher education’s formal complexity in principle, as a good which delivers both public and private benefit, is outlined there as a preliminary to establishing its distinctiveness among the various social goods that might be expected to advance transformation. Also placed on the agenda are the reciprocal relations between higher education and other policy areas, noting that the latter are relevant to the optimal functioning of the academy in a transformation context and that the academy, in turn, has particular contributions to make to reform in the public sector.



Theorising then addresses policy and social practice in section 3, with a focus on the specific social benefits we might expect higher education to deliver, not just in a democracy but in a society in process of substantive democratisation. The relation of higher education to the ‘growth’ aspect of the public good is too well documented and less close to the heart of claims about over-steering to require very lengthy comment there. In this central part of the analysis, more attention is given to the various respects in which higher education is a social practice with great and complex potential to contribute to the equity dimension of the public good. Equity as a general goal is broken down into its stages of political and social progress on the road to substantive equality. In each of those stages in turn, the role of higher education is focused on and it is argued, with examples from current policy, that each of them has implications for how academic freedom, institutional autonomy and public accountability might usefully be reconceptualised. It is claimed that whilst an element of trade-off between those three claimed rights and duties arises in relation to some of the policy examples which are prominent at each of equity’s developmental stages, in relation to others, indeed the most significant of them, public accountability examined in context supports and enriches a contextualised understanding of academic freedom – without detriment to core academic values or the freedoms which underpin them.

This paper’s attempt to sketch in outline the social and political contexts of higher education steering debates would remain inadequate under modern conditions without attention to the pressures of the market in today’s world. Thus a fourth section considers the role of the market in influencing government, higher education institutions externally, and universities internally and academics individually (through ‘managerialism’, ‘entrepreneurialism’ and competition in the academy). Here the analysis comments both on the appropriate role of government in limiting various types of ‘market failure’ in relation to higher education, and on the appropriate role of institutions and individual academics in managing, and where appropriate exploiting, the unavoidable aspects of powerful market forces. The duties of academic institutions and individuals to preserve their core rationale in the face of those pressures, in partnership with the government of the day, are highlighted. At this point a basic framework should have been drawn to suggest mutually supporting concepts of academic freedom, institutional autonomy and public accountability which could be further developed and might secure the collaborative allegiance of the various role-players in the steering of higher education in South Africa.



Whereas the first four sections draw on political and educational theory, suggesting implications for academic freedom, institutional autonomy and public accountability, a fifth section recalls the higher education context, past and present – a discursive background against which debate evolves. Since understandings and expectations do not spring from nowhere, the practical and intellectual contexts of national discourse and debate over recent years should be part of a framework designed to take forward considerations of the academy’s steering. In the context of higher education’s ‘modernisation’, but with regard to the national frame, attention is given to aspects of the intellectual freight carried by the unequal and divided higher education sector which a democratic South Africa inherited a decade ago: to a plurality of understandings about what constitutes ‘normal academic practice’ and a range of expectations about future relations with government within a democratised state. Then the trajectory of higher education vision and policy since transition is referenced, to highlight a change-process ratcheting up expectations and anxieties in tandem. Finally, the local impact of the international scene is considered, since extranational influences and pressures are again particularly complex in South Africa, where differing social constituencies and differing voices within the academy look in diverse directions for both exemplars and warnings for higher education. That glimpse of discursive context suggests that the divisions of the past bring not only their inherited challenges but also opportunities for a future in which a diversity in understandings and aspirations can fuel a transparent and rich debate on academic freedom, institutional autonomy and democratic accountability.



A brief concluding section pulls together the paper’s claims concerning how those contested concepts might be developed within the contextual framework outlined. Those indicators might set the stage for further analysis, firstly of a study of the discursive (local historical and international) background to recent and ongoing debate in South Africa, and also for a detailed and considered examination of the sophisticated and nuanced debates on academic freedom, institutional autonomy and public accountability which have developed both within and beyond the academy there. It is only after full consideration of that rich debate in its discursive context that an outsider like this paper’s writer would feel entitled to make a more elaborated contribution to the debate itself.