An enquiry into the public accountability of higher education institutions in South Africa (or, indeed, in any society), requires us to pose several related questions. First, are South African higher education institutions accountable to the public in whose midst they operate? If so, of what does that accountability consist? And how can it be ensured in ways which do not compromise the intellectual freedom of those who work in higher education institutions? Second, what is the place of higher education institutions’ public accountability in the context of democratic governance? Third, how can we balance the need for institutional autonomy with public accountability? Fourth, what is the public purpose of higher education institutions and what, therefore, is the purpose of their public accountability? By addressing these issues, we can begin to define and conceptualise higher education institutions’ public accountability in South Africa’s democratic order.
This paper, therefore, seeks to conceptualise the public accountability of higher education institutions in post-1994 South Africa. It is divided into eight sections. Following the introductory section, sections 1 and 2 respectively provide the background to, and rationale for, institutions’ public accountability, while section 3 deals with some of the problems which this poses. Section 4 conceptualises and identifies routes to public accountability in the context of higher education institutions. It also criticises the argument that the market can ensure the public accountability of institutions. Section 5 examines the tensions between institutions’ public accountability and academic freedom. Section 6 argues for the institutionalisation of negotiation, before a brief concluding section draws the paper to a close. The paper draws on secondary sources, presentations at meetings of higher education stakeholders, and interviews.