A two-year restructuring exercise that has slashed the number of South Africa's higher education institutions from 36 to 23 has ended symbolically with the launch of Higher Education South Africa, a body that brings together all vice-chancellors.
The hope is that Hesa, created from a merger between the South African Universities Vice-Chancellors' Association and the Committee of Technikon Principals, will provide a strong and united voice. Higher education has for decades been divided in representation. The sector was created under apartheid and was fragmented by race, ideology and funding.
The new sector has no binary divide, and duplications and inefficiencies brought about by apartheid have been eradicated. The six technikons have become universities of technology. There are 11 research universities and six "comprehensive" universities offering academic and vocational qualifications.
Student leaders are also working to create a single union of Student Representative Councils.
President Thabo Mbeki has put higher education at the centre of economic growth and development. Piyushi Kotecha, interim chief executive officer of Hesa, said institutions urgently needed better understanding of their new role and a "concerted coordinating and support effort".
"For our sector to succeed it will have to respond effectively to a double urgency: the dynamic and competitive global higher education market and the pressing educational challenges that have been laid at our door," Ms Kotecha said.
Enver Surty, the Deputy Education Minister, said Hesa's challenges included managing the balance between universities' core functions and the needs of a developing state, improving contact between further and higher education and rebuilding public confidence in higher education.
Hesa also needed to continue the strong involvement of South African higher education in the region and across the continent. South Africa has taken leadership roles in the Association of African Universities and the new Southern African Regional Universities Association.