Higher Education Amendment Bill under scrutiny in Parly

Parliament’s higher education portfolio committee is hosting two days of public hearings on the bill.

Thousands of university students across the country protested against the proposed fee hike in their respective institutions in October 2015. Picture: Andiswa Mkosi Primedia.

CAPE TOWN - The controversial Higher Education Amendment Bill is under scrutiny in Parliament.

Parliament's higher education portfolio committee is hosting two days of public hearings on the bill, which gives the higher education minister wide powers to set transformation goals for institutions and to set up oversight mechanisms to ensure they are met.

The South African Parastatal and Tertiary Institutions Union (Saptu) is flagging this as cause for concern.

It says most of the amendments proposed by the bill are necessary for the higher education sector to operate more efficiently.

But Professor Derek Van der Merwe says the bill's transformation provisions are too broad.

"Our concern is that this is a broad brush stroke; the entire system. Each university will be expected to promote transformation goals set by the minister."

Van der Merwe says the bill as it stands makes no provision for any consultation with university councils over this and simply empowers the higher education minister to deal with the details by way of regulation.

The Higher Education Transformation Network (HETN) and the University of Cape Town (UCT) are also expected to give their views on the bill today.

The Higher Education Amendment Bill will replace the Higher Education Act of 1997, which has been amended nine times and parts of which are out of date.

The 'Fees Must Fall' protests have brought obstacles to access to higher education into sharp focus, but consultations on the bill started long before the movement gathered steam.

The University of Cape Town (UCT) says many of the changes proposed by the new Higher Education Amendment Bill are welcome, but it's raised red flags over a number of clauses.

Nzimande introduced the Bill in November.

There's concern in some quarters that some parts of the Bill pose a threat to the autonomy and academic freedom of universities.

UCT Vice Chancellor Max Price has raised a number of concerns about the Bill, including the power it gives the Higher Education minister to insist that a particular person be appointed or promoted.

Price says currently if someone is passed over for a professorship for example, they can take it up internally before approaching the CCMA or the courts if necessary.

"The minister can say this institution has a duty of fairness and equity to this applicant for promotion. I am going to issue a directive to the university that they must promote this person to professor and nothing in the amendment constrains that power."

Price says this is unconstitutional and seriously infringes a university's autonomy.