South Africa's universities and technikons are to benefit from a shift in British development funding towards tackling an HIV-Aids epidemic that is decimating the region, including its highly vulnerable and already heavily infected student population.
Funding will be directed towards prevention through education, caring for the sick and research.
The Department for International Development is to inject £40 million over the next four years into the fight against HIV-Aids in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Swaziland and Lesotho, starting with £1 million that will go to South African higher education for student and staff prevention and support.
Barbara Payne, the DFID's senior education adviser in Pretoria, said that the disease had become the major focus for funding in the region, which receives £45 million a year in DFID aid.
The initial £1 million will soon be distributed to South Africa's 36 universities and technikons. Institutions are submitting proposals for funds that will be used to raise student awareness of the disease at the start of the new academic year in February, as well as to provide HIV-Aids support.
"We are excited by the potential for higher education, with its enormous resources, to take the lead in tackling HIV-Aids," said Ms Payne.
The DFID is working with the national education department on a range of projects, and in higher education with the South African Universities' Vice-Chancellors' Association (Sauvca) and the Committee of Technikon Principals.
Some universities and technikons have reacted very slowly to the epidemic. Others have advanced Aids policies and a vast range of research. Institutions will be involved in wider efforts to deal with the epidemic through, for instance, developing HIV-Aids life skills curricula for schools and distance learning for children infected or affected by the disease.
Wezi Botha, who runs Sauvca's special projects, said the sector welcomed support for its first national Higher Education Against HIV-Aids initiative, which was conceived early this year as a partnership with the education department and the DFID. Other southern African institutions affiliated to Sauvca will also be supported under the programme.
"We will begin distributing funds to institutions in mid-January on a needs basis in a highly accountable programme that will report to the DFID every three months. Since institutions are best placed to know what their HIV-Aids needs are, it is up to them to formulate proposals for funding."
HIV-Aids poses a serious threat to the health of southern African higher education in a region with one of the world's fastest-growing epidemics. In South Africa, prevalence rose from less than 1 per cent in 1990 to 23 per cent in 1998 - a more than 30-fold increase. There are now 4.7 million South Africans living with HIV and some 5,000 people dying of Aids each week. One in four of the country's nearly half a million students is estimated to be living with HIV-Aids, along with a growing numbers of staff.
Higher education bodies have been grappling with a national HIV-Aids plan for the past two years and now have a sector-wide profile of institutions' policies and activities.