The South African government is facing fierce resistance to its efforts to streamline higher education, with one university going to court to stop an ordered merger and another successfully fighting a student enrolment moratorium imposed by the state.
Education minister Kader Asmal has been accused of wielding a heavy hand over a cash-strapped higher education sector that accepts the need for rationalisation of a system riddled by apartheid-inspired duplication, but wants slower transformation.
The University of South Africa (Unisa) and the University of Transkei (Unitra) have become the first flashpoints, but more problems are expected when a government report on further mergers is released. But, a voluntary merger to create the Durban Institute for Technology out of Natal and ML Sultan Technikons, is proceeding smoothly.
Education officials have been negotiating with Unisa, the country's distance-learning university, over an application it has lodged to prevent the government creating a new Open Learning University of South Africa by merging it with Technikon South Africa and the distance arm of Vista University. The new institution will have more than 200,000 students, and is due to be created on February 1.
"Talks are continuing," Unisa spokeswoman Doreen Gough said. "Meanwhile, the university is operating normally and we expect student numbers to be up 9 per cent this year." If the application is successful, the case will be heard in a Pretoria high court in September, delaying a merger.
McCaps Motimele, chair of Unisa's council, said the merger would mean the demise of the university, which felt the process required more planning and "proper consultations".
The university says the merger is illegal because it was not given proper notice and because the minister does not have the legal authority to decide on its start date or the name of the new institution.
Professor Asmal speeded up the merger after a war of words with Unisa's council over its appointment of a new vice-chancellor against the minister's wishes. Barney Pityana, former head of the Human Rights Commission, was given a five-year contract even though the merged institution would soon be required to select a new leader.
Professor Asmal offered to delay the merger date to April if Unisa dropped its legal action to allow it to nominate members for an interim council that is charged with appointing a body to manage the new entity.
Unitra's encounter with the minister has been more successful. The university and the local community were outraged at the government's decision to place a moratorium on new student enrolments when universities re-open in February.
Professor Asmal promised Unitra that it would not close, but said drastic action was needed because of concerns about the sustainability of an institution that was suffering a leadership vacuum after being placed under an administrator for two years, that faced "huge" debts and had question marks over its academic quality.
The future of Unitra will be directed by a working group that is advising Professor Asmal.