In the news: Kader Asmal

September 5, 2003

Academics' conferences do not normally take ministers to their hearts unless they are promising money. But, as his title suggests, Professor Kader Asmal is no ordinary politician. South Africa's education minister has a long academic pedigree and is practically an honorary Irishman after years' teaching law at Trinity College, Dublin.

Following luminaries such as senator George Mitchell, hero of the Northern Ireland peace process, and United Nations commissioner Mary Robinson, Professor Asmal could have sunk without trace at the Association of Commonwealth Universities' conference in Belfast. But, by taking on diverse targets such as the World Trade Organisation and England's higher education white paper, he stole the show.

His barrister's training ensures that he knows the value of humour: the diminutive minister likes to assure his audience that he is standing up when he takes the podium. And four years as South Africa's education minister have left him unafraid to ruffle influential feathers.

The 500-strong audience at Queen's University probably expected Professor Asmal to attack the concept of higher education as a service ripe for inclusion in General Agreement on Trade in Services talks in CancNon, but even those who were aware of his flair for controversy were surprised that he strayed into British politics. Anticipating the visit of his English counterpart, Charles Clarke, he said he would never dare to champion some aspects of the white paper and he wondered how Mr Clarke could "get away with it".

Since he had acknowledged the possibility of teaching-only universities and spoken unashamedly of South Africa's fees policy, British delegates were intrigued to learn the object of Professor Asmal's ire. It turned out to be the foundation degree - a qualification that confused many Anglophiles who thought they understood the distinction between two-year diplomas and degrees.


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