Minister signals shake-up

September 10, 1999

DURBAN

Significant changes to higher education have been signalled by South Africa's new education minister, Kader Asmal, including possible closures and mergers for some institutions and new missions for others.

In a "call to action" following six weeks of intensive consultation, Professor Asmal promised strict regulation of booming private institutions and careful planned growth of the public sector. He challenged institutions to become more efficient and accountable and criticised their lack of progress towards gender equality, pointing out that while student bodies now better reflect South Africa's demographic realities, academics remain largely white and male.

"Quite frankly I'm appalled," he told a meeting of the South African Universities' Vice-chancellors' Association (Sauvca). "It is essential that there be visible change at senior administration and professorial level. Universities really must get their acts together. Or do you want me to set gender equality targets?"

Professor Asmal plans to promote greater equity and called on institutions to set targets for improved representation of black and female staff as part of their institutional plans.

The minister denounced the World Bank view that too much is being spent on higher education in the developing world and pledged to sustain (though not increase) spending on higher education. "At the moment we spend 14 per cent of our education budget on this sector. We will sustain this level of spending, but in return institutions will have to give value for money," he told the vice-chancellors.

The apartheid-designed tertiary system would be urgently reviewed with the help of the Council on Higher Education, Professor Asmal said. It was vital that the mission and location of institutions be examined with reference to the sector's strategic plan and community and national needs.

"This complex and difficult exercise is likely to result in mergers between some institutions and decisions to change the missions of others," he wrote in his "call to action" document.

"It is well known that institutions find it very difficult to come to such decisions on their own. Provided the investigation has been thorough and consultation undertaken fully and in good faith, I will not hesitate to take the necessary action with speed."

Professor Asmal promised that he would support the sector - though universities would have to "earn their stripes. Restructuring can't be ignored if we are to achieve our goal of a rational and seamless higher education system capable of dealing with the challenges of the 21st century. This will mean a new commitment of universities to their place in the total education loop."

Professor Asmal's commitment to protect public higher education against "inadvertent damage" by private institutions will be welcomed by universities. The proliferation of private institutions, he said, "must be brought under strict but considered regulation".

He pledged to review the new registration process for private institutions and to seek international advice on managing "private, corporate and 'borderless' higher education" and its relation to human resources planning. He said the reasons for a decline in enrolments in public institutions needed to be better understood.

Piyushi Kotecha, Sauvca's chief executive officer, said Professor Asmal displayed a deep sense of engagement with universities and emphasised "co-determination" between them and the government. "This means there will be extensive consultation and a lot of joint agreements," he said. "But it is also clear that the minister is going to place pressure on institutions to perform."

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