Post-apartheid battle on merger

June 15, 2001

Vista University is taking the South African government to court for ordering its break-up in the first of a series of mergers between higher education institutions this year.

The lawsuit from the "historically disadvantaged" is the first volley in the fight against forced mergers or collaboration.

Education minister Kader Asmal is determined to rationalise the duplication of provision on racial grounds created by the apartheid regime.

Many other historically disadvantaged (formerly black) institutions are also in crisis, plagued by mismanagement, spiralling debt and falling student numbers.

Professor Asmal published a national plan earlier this year to incorporate Vista's seven satellite campuses into nearby institutions. He said that Vista - a complex institution with a distance-education centre, campuses in three provinces and about a third of students in teacher education - was unviable.

The university had more than 19,000 students last year but they are stretched across campuses that operate almost independently. Teacher training is being consolidated by merging education colleges into universities and Vista's unbundling will complete that exercise.

But Vista argues that the plan is inconsistent with the spirit and intent of South Africa's laws. "Having failed to dissuade (Asmal) from his intended course," it said in a statement, Vista "reluctantly instructed its lawyers to pursue its cause through the court".

Spokeswoman Hanrie Greebe said the university did not want to comment on the lawsuit as the matter was sub judice . She added: "The university respects government and the stance of the minister."

"But its academics have argued that Vista's demise will limit access to poor students. Its fees - some R4,000 (£360) a year - are a third of those at historically white universities and its entrance requirements are lower. Relationships forged with local communities would be destroyed.

Vista was an obvious candidate for unbundling but others could prove far more difficult.

Some, like Fort Hare, will proffer historical and geographical reasons. But all will argue for autonomy and express outrage at a black government handing over historically black institutions to the management of historically white ones.

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