Medical schools at South African universities have been told that from next year their state funding will reflect the racial mix of their first-year student intake.
Speaking on behalf of health minister Nkosazana Zuma, welfare minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi told parliament that the national health department was, in collaboration with its provincial counterparts and other stakeholders, drawing up a quota system.
The deans from the major medical schools have condemned the plan, which suggests that the intake would have to be 76 per cent African, 13 per cent white, 8.5 per cent so-called coloured, and 2.5 per cent Indian.
Ms Fraser-Moleketi said that while the African National Congress government respected the autonomy of universities, it had an obligation to ensure that all sectors of society had access to medical education. The quotas would reflect the national demographics of South Africa, not those of the provinces in which the universities were based.
Ayanda Ntsaluba, deputy director-general of health, said that the pace of admission of black students at the country's eight medical schools was too slow. Of 22,000 medical doctors in South Africa, only 3,000 are black.
Health department director-general Olive Shisana said that legislation would not be passed to enforce a quota system, but the funding formula would provide incentives to universities, to meet the quotas. Subsidies would be proportionate to the number of black medical students enrolled. The health department was discussing the issue with the education department, which actually funds the medical schools.
Such a policy would affect the leading universities to varying degrees. If implemented, the policy would most affect Afrikaans-language universities such as Stellenbosch, the Free State and Pretoria, which have struggled most to attract African students - or in the government's perception, done the least to recruit them.
The English-language institutions have for some time been trying to improve their demographic profiles but have struggled to find suitable African applicants. Many predominantly African schools do not offer mathematics and science, for example.
Medical school deans recently told the parliamentary portfolio committee on health that they had to compete in the same small pool of academically qualified black matriculants, which limited their ability to change the racial profile.
The government rejects this argument. It believes there is resistance to change and that the universities have not been innovative enough in identifying potential students.
Among others, the University of Cape Town has warned that while admission standards could be eased to increase the intake of African students, this would increase the possibility of first-year failures and would increase pressure to lower teaching standards.