South Africa's undergraduate degrees are to be lengthened to four years and split into two sets of two-year courses under radical proposals drafted by the Council on Higher Education.
Universities and technikons are also to be graded into five categories according to their quality.
If the draft recommendations are realised, the country's leading institutions will be allowed to apply strict admissions criteria and focus on research and high-level study.
Weaker universities and technikons will focus on undergraduate qualifications and teaching, with funding committed to student and staff development. Strong departments will be able to do some research and teach up to masters level.
The recommendations have stirred up controversy in a system acknowledged to be deeply un-
equal but one that had planned to improve quality at sub-standard institutions through funding and development.
Critics have slammed the council's ideas as a return to apartheid, which set up institutions based on race and drastically favoured historically white institutions.
The new system will not be racially defined, but what it cannot avoid is the reality that historically disadvantaged institutions will remain academically disadvantaged.
Kader Asmal, the South African education minister, gave the council the job of proposing reconfigurations to the higher education system. It set up a "size and shape" task team, which must produce final proposals by the end of June.
The task team said, in a draft report, that it was committed to establishing a system "which strives to achieve equity and aspires to excellence".
For this to happen, areas of "pervasive dysfunctionality" in parts of the system would have to be tackled. These include a serious decline in enrolments in many institutions, poor pass and graduation rates, skewed racial and gender distribution, low research outputs and "fragile" management.
A coherent and integrated national system, the council argues, is not a uniform system. Institutions need to find niches that enable them to meet national needs, improve quality and be competitive.
Institutional differentiation will be based on the levels and types of qualifications each will offer, and on the introduction of a four-year first bachelor's degree (currently most are three years) organised into a "two-plus-two" structure.
The first two years would develop generic and foundation skills, after which students could leave with a college-type qualification or progress to a bachelor's or higher degree. Years three and four would stress single disciplines and multi-discipline based specialisation and would introduce research methodology.
"Some institutions will offer the two-year qualifications only. Others will offer the two-year qualification as part of a two-plus-two curriculated four-year degree. Yet others would only offer the four-year and higher level qualifications."