Days after announcing plans to cut the number of South African tertiary institutions from 36 to 21, education minister Kader Asmal this week warned that he may introduce a racial quota system if universities fail to meet their targets for black students.
On Tuesday, Professor Asmal told a parliamentary education committee that all institutions would be asked to set targets for the admission of black students. If the targets are not met in five to seven years, "there must be real consideration given to quotas".
Despite rapid growth in the number of black students since the end of apartheid, there are still "enormous distortions" in participation between race groups, the minister said. Only 14 per cent of black school-leavers access higher education, compared with 42 per cent of whites and 37 per cent of Asians.
Professor Asmal said that issues such as academic standards and language should not be used to exclude people. He said: "Language will not be allowed as a barrier for access, particularly in Afrikaans institutions."
Last week, the cabinet approved Professor Asmal's final plan for restructuring higher education, which leaves intact all but two mergers suggested in January by a national working group. Both of the changes "rescue" institutions that have played a prominent political and educational role in South Africa's history.
Fort Hare - alma mater to many African leaders and the oldest historically black institution - has been spared a merger with the universities of Rhodes and Transkei, while the formerly "coloured" University of the Western Cape will no longer merge with a local technikon.
The merger plan keeps half of the country's formerly white universities intact while merging or closing most formerly black institutions - South Africa's smallest and weakest universities. A merger between the country's two distance learning institutions was announced last year.
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