COMMENTS ON THE NATIONAL PLAN FOR HIGHER EDUCATION OF THE MINISTRY OF EDUCATION FEBRUARY 2001 By Magda Fourie, Deputy Director URHE, University of Free State The long-awaited National Plan for Higher Education was launched by the Minister of Education, Prof. Kader Asmal, on 5 March 2001. This Plan is a further step in the process of restructuring South African higher education which started with the National Education Policy Investigation (NEPI) in the early nineties, the investigation and report of the National Commission on Higher Education in 1996, the Green and White Papers on Higher Education Transformation and the Higher Education Act. Since the publication of the new higher education policy and legislation in 1997, higher education institutions have experienced a so-called ‘policy implementation vacuum’, which to a large extent is now addressed by the National Plan. The Plan puts in place a framework with clear recommendations in terms of policy implementation, and strives to balance the two important principles of equity (redress) and excellence (quality). According to the Minister’s address at the launch of the Plan, the Plan is not up for further consultation nor for negotiation. “It marks the beginning of a new phase of delivery of a quality higher education system that will truly contribute to the social, economic and political challenges that face our country” (Asmal 2001). The Plan consists of seven sections covering the following: • Producing the graduates needed for social and economic development in South Africa • Achieving equity in the South African higher education system • Achieving diversity in the South African higher education system • Sustaining and promoting research • Restructuring the institutional landscape of the higher education system. To a large extent the Plan succeeds in balancing the realities of South African higher education and the need to restructure and transform the sector in order to meet the challenges of the new millennium. The Plan paves the way for more central (national) steering of the higher education system in order to reconfigure it in line with the development needs of the country, but also to create some order in the system. Key recommendations of the Plan include the differentiation of the missions of South African higher education institutions through the identification of niche areas. These niche areas will be negotiated by each institution and the Ministry in the lightofinstitutional Strengths and capacity, and regional and national needs. Institutional niches will serve as point of departure for consideration of teaching and research areas and programme mixes. With regard to the reconfiguration of the institutional landscape, the Plan proposes the establishment of a single, dedicated distance education institution by means of the merging of the University of South Africa, Technikon SA and the incorporation of the distance education campus of Vista University (VUDEC). Other proposals in this regard include the unbundling of Vista University and the incorporation of Uniqwa with the University of the Free State. The establishment of National Institutes for Higher Education in Mpumalanga and the Northern Cape is also proposed. The Minister plans to increase the participation rate in higher education from 15% to 20% over the next ten to fifteen years and also to shift the balance of enrolments between the humanities, business and commerce and science, engineering and technology to a ratio of 40:30:30 over the next five to ten years. The Plan pays significant attention to student and staff equity, and institutions are expected to develop employment equity plans with clear targets for rectifying race and gender inequities. Although the Plan is generally welcomed over the entire higher education sector in South Africa, concerns have been expressed about the lack of capacity at both national and institutional levels to give full effect to mostly very good proposals.