South Africa's education minister Kader Asmal has backed away from wholesale mergers, a three-tier system of teaching, comprehensive and research institutions and longer undergraduate degrees in his plan for higher education.
Instead, his plan includes limited mergers, a new research funding formula, drives towards greater gender and ethnic equity and a shift to the sciences. It features most of the proposals of the Council on Higher Education's 2000 report, Towards a New Higher Education Landscape .
University vice-chancellors welcomed a "balanced and considered response" to the realities of the system and the imperatives of restructuring and transformation.
The plan tackled many concerns about the council report while building on its strengths, said vice-chancellors' association chief executive Piyushi Kotecha.
The government will use planning and funding levers to steer transformation, for example by penalising institutions that do not meet equity targets.
Although inequalities have greatly eased, with black students comprising 71 per cent of enrolments against 53 per cent in 1993, the plan aims to stamp out lingering differences between institutions and fields.
Where local constraints make it impossible to achieve demographic representation, institutions are urged to look elsewhere in Africa for students and staff. The ministry will allocate funded student places on a planning grid, taking into account past and current institutional performances in enrolling and graduating black, women and disabled students.
Professor Asmal said the plan would shape the transformation of the system for decades.
Vista University will disappear and a distance institution will be created from a merger between the open University of South Africa, Technikon South Africa and Vista's distance arm.
Natal Technikon and ML Sultan Technikon in Durban will merge, the Qua-Qwa branch of the University of the North will be incorporated into the University of the Free State. Two institutes for higher education will be set up in Mplumalanga and Northern Cape provinces.
Instead of an earlier proposal for a three-tier institutional system, the plan proposes achieving diversity through distinct missions and programmes for each institution. Academic mixes will be based on current profiles and institutions' capacity to add new programmes.
Other strategies include: a research formula based on postgraduate and publication outputs; funding to build research capacity; and increasing the participation rate from 15 per cent to 20 per cent in 15 years.