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South African cabinet backs merger plan for universities


Cape Town

South Africa is to proceed with a controversial plan to merge institutes of higher education that taught blacks and whites separately under apartheid (see Nature 417, 377–378; 2002).

The historically black University of the Western Cape is set to retain its separate identity. Credit: UWC

The cabinet accepted the merger plan late last month after Kader Asmal, the education minister, made concessions that will allow two of the nation's best-known historically black universities — the University of the Western Cape and the University of Fort Hare — to retain their separate identities.

The country's 21 universities and 15 technikons (polytechnics) will now be streamlined into 11 universities, 6 technikons and 4 comprehensive institutions that will offer both university and technikon programmes. The government says that this will create “a system that is equitable, academically and financially sustainable, and productive”.

The government also hopes to counter falling registration numbers by increasing the participation rate — the percentage of 20–24-year-olds enrolled in higher education — from 15% to 20% over the next 10 years. This will involve an estimated additional 200,000 students, most of whom will need to be supported by increased government allocations to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme — although the government also hopes to recruit more students from other countries in the region.

The South African government is also committed to reducing the percentage of enrolments in the humanities from 49% to 40% over the next five to ten years, while increasing those in business or commerce from 26% to 30%, and those in science, engineering and technology from 25% to 30%.

Derrick Swartz, rector of the University of Fort Hare, said in a statement that the cabinet's decision had vindicated its long campaign against the merger, and that he hoped it would make the “new Fort Hare the major player in the region”. But others were less satisfied. “These are senseless proposals that amount to merely tinkering with the status quo,” Itumeleng Mosala, Rector of the Technikon North-West and chairman of the Association of Historically Disadvantaged Institutions, told the Johannesburg daily Business Day.

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