THE SOUTH AFRICAN government, under pressure to move quickly to end the inequalities in higher education of the apartheid era, is to explore ways to "Africanise" its now heavily-Eurocentric universities.
Ministers want to create a distinctive form of university education of relevance to the country. They hope to use the Association of African Universities as a forum to discuss the country's proposals for restructuring within the African higher education community and to incorporate other countries' experience in their own plans.
The proposals were set out in the report of the national commission, formally presented to President Mandela in August.
Jairam Reddy, who chaired the national commission and is now advising the education department on its implementation, said this week: "There is the space within our proposed structure to accommodate these things."
Dr Reddy, former vice chancellor of the University of Durban-Westville, accepts that the commission was criticised for saying little about "Africanisation", and that its report appeared to be designed to antagonise as few people as possible.
The problem was to meet the aspirations of disenfranchised blacks without scaring off liberals who had sought to use the white non-Afrikaans universities as bastions of resistance and reform.
"We have tried to tread the middle ground in a very muddy field," Dr Reddy said during a visit to the United Kingdom organised by the Canon Collins Educational Trust for Southern Africa.
The commission's objectives included making South Africa's 21 universities and 15 technikons (polytechnics) more responsive to the needs of post-apartheid society and redressing the imbalances between the historically white and black universities.
Its recommendations will form the basis of a green paper for circulation in November before a white paper is drafted in January for speedy consideration by the government and parliament.
The compromise at the heart of the reforms is a single expanded, coordinated system embracing universities, technikons and colleges while retaining the distinctions abandoned elsewhere, for example in the UK and Australia. A new body will monitor internal quality processes but Dr Reddy said: "We are not so much linking lack of quality with punitive sanctions; we would rather go for incentives to quality promotion."
A formula which allows ministers to earmark a variable slice of annual funding is likely to be used to rebuild the historically black universities, which were deprived of resources during the apartheid years.
But this will have to be done without antagonising the traditionally white liberal universities and the Afrikaans universities.