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On autonomy and the role of universities in South Africa

August 28, 2008

The definition of autonomy that has become a classic not only here, but has also been quoted with approval in numerous American cases, is that it entails the freedom of a university to determine for itself on academic grounds only who should teach, what should be taught, how it should be taught and who should be admitted as students. Although this definition has later been found to be narrow, it still remains a useful guideline in demarcating the limits of legitimate autonomy. The limits of this autonomy are important, because some people have problems as to how an institution that is subsidised by the government can claim to be autonomous from the government. Is it not true that he who pays the piper calls the tune, they ask?

Notwithstanding this view, there is no doubt that a university needs autonomy and a measure of freedom for its academics if it has to play its role of generating and disseminating knowledge effectively. Academic freedom is important because it enables academics to think freely, to speculate and to experiment with new ideas. Important developments have been spearheaded by those people who think freely and creatively. Knowledge generated through this creative and critical thinking is important for the development of society. Academic freedom is also important because it allows for critical scrutiny of all aspects of society, social, economic and political, and facilitates re-evaluation and renewal. Knowledge is advanced through critical inquiry and not through encouraging orthodoxy or adherence to accepted dogma.

Dlamini, C.R.M. 1997, “Academic Freedom and the Autonomy of Tertiary Institutions,” Based on the author’s unpublished LL.D. thesis, University Autonomy and Academic Freedom in South Africa, UNISA, 1996.

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