Topic: Academic Freedom and Institutional Autonomy: A View from the Tyhume Valley
Time: 18:00 (SAST)
Venue: New Lecture Theatre (NLT), University Avenue South, Upper Campus, University of Cape Town
Speaker – Professor Sakhela Buhlungu
Sakhela Buhlungu is Professor of Sociology and the current Vice-Chancellor of University of Fort Hare. He received his BA at the University of Transkei (1982), BA Honours at UCT (1986), MA and PhD Wits (1996 and 2002). He has held academic positions at several South African universities – the University of the Witwatersrand, the University of Johannesburg, the University of Pretoria, and the University of Cape Town. Before taking up his current appointment at the university of Fort Hare, he was Dean of Humanities at UCT.
Buhlungu’s PhD and scholarly work is in Industrial Sociology and Labour Studies. He has published extensively in his field, including peer-reviewed journal articles, chapters, books, and other newspaper articles, and presented numerous international conference papers and seminars. His monograph, A Paradox of Victory: COSATU and the democratic transformation in South Africa. remains one of the most cited scholarly works in labour studies during the democratic transition in South Africa. He was a visiting scholar at the Five Colleges Programme: The University of Massachusetts, Amherst (USA) (2005) and an Ella Bhatt Visiting Professor at the University of Kassel, Germany (2011 – 12).
Before his university career Professor Buhlungu was a teacher at Manzana High School, Ngcobo and later a national education officer and assistant general secretary of the Paper, Printing, Wood, and Allied Workers’ Union. He was one of the founder writers of COSATU’s journal, The Shop Steward and was a regular contributor and editorial board member of the South African Labour Bulletin.
The late 1950s marked a negative turning point for higher education in South Africa. The Extension of University Act 45 of 1959 set the country on a path of ethnic segregation of university education whose effects are still with us more than 60 years later and almost 30 years of democracy. The tireless efforts of Dr TB Davie received acknowledgement by students and staff in the form of the annual TB Davie Memorial Lecture at the University of Cape Town. From 1959 eminent academics and activists were invited to present the lecture. Significantly for me, Professor ZK Matthews, the first graduate of the University of Fort Hare (1924), academic and political activist gave the third lecture in 1961. Titled “African Awakening and the Universities”, Professor Matthews lecture made a link between academic freedom and the quest for liberation in South Africa and the continent.
In this lecture I identify four moments that marked the introduction of ethnic education and assault on academic freedom at the University of Fort Hare – the Extension of University Act of 1959, the appointment of Broederbonder Professor JM De Wet in 1968, the closure and subsequent annexation of the Federal Theological Seminary (FEDSEM) to Fort Hare in 1974/5 and the handing over of the University to the Ciskei Bantustan in 1981. These developments had a debilitating effect on the university which the current administration still has to contend with today.
I then present four propositions about academic freedom and institutional autonomy in the current conjuncture in South Africa.
- In the public higher education sector, academic freedom and institutional autonomy is contextual in that it means different things to different institutions because of our different histories.
- In the current period striving for academic freedom and institutional autonomy in one university is a futile exercise. Yet in the current context the public higher education system is extremely fragmented as institutions and their leadership increasingly retreat into an inward-looking and competitive posture.
- In the last decade or so, we have witnessed serious incursions into, and erosion of, academic freedom and institutional autonomy in the public higher education sector.
- In the modern age globally, the impulse to intervene and set limits to academic freedom is common among all state officials, regardless of their well-meaning intentions.
The lecture concludes by challenging people in the sector – staff, academic and administrators – to rethink the notions of academic freedom and institutional autonomy in the modern age. In this regard, I make a call to students to reexamine their role and contribution to the future of the higher education sector.