UL Medunsa

UL Medunsa, The Medical University of South Africa (Medunsa) is being separated from the University of Limpopo (UL) and will in January next year become a part of the new Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University (SMU).

Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande said on Monday the transition process required co-operation between the UL and SMU, the details of which were contained in a “protocol of engagement” signed in June this year.

The establishment of the SMU as a legal entity in May this year underscored the government’s plans to expand its capacity to train enough doctors. A new academic hospital has been earmarked for Limpopo by next year, which would be used as a teaching facility for a new medical school at the University of Limpopo.

The country requires an increasing number of suitably qualified healthcare professionals to meet its pressing healthcare needs, and a dedicated higher education institution has been touted as part of the solution. SA has also been sending students to study medicine in Cuba since 1996.

In a statement on Monday, Mr Nzimande said a framework had been provided for “effective communication, interaction, planning, preparation, implementation and mutual support between the two parties during the transitional period during which the Medunsa campus will be de-linked from UL”.

He said safeguards were in place to ensure that the “operational decisions by any of the parties in this period do not adversely impact on the operational and organisational integrity of either party”.

The decision to unbundle Medunsa from the UL was taken at the African National Congress’s national executive committee lekgotla in 2011.

Medunsa and the then University of the North in Mankweng, outside Polokwane, merged to form the University of Limpopo after higher education was reconfigured in 2005 by late education minister Kader Asmal. This was despite the campuses being 300km apart.

The merger was met with scepticism among various stakeholders, and the government set up a task team in 2010 to review the issue. It included Max Price and Malegapuru Makgoba, vice-chancellors of the universities of Cape Town and KwaZulu-Natal.

The task team report was received by Mr Nzimande and Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi in 2011. It recommended that the merger of the two institutions be undone and that a new university be established, incorporating Medunsa.

According to the report, the Limpopo health department, students, academics and other university employees were opposed to the continued relationship with Medunsa. The report further stated that the only benefit Medunsa got from the merger was the R50m subsidy it received from the UL.

Mr Nzimande said on Monday a joint technical task team had looked into the transitional arrangements for separating Medunsa from the UL, as well as the establishment of a new university — which will incorporate Medunsa.

The task team also conducted a comprehensive cost analysis on the sustainability and viability of establishing a new medical institution as a stand-alone university offering a comprehensive suite of healthcare-related programmes as its core operation, he said.

Higher education expert Ian Scott said the merger of Medunsa and the University of the North to form the University of Limpopo was a problem from the start.

“I see it as having been a management solution to the question of Medunsa’s viability as an independent university, rather than as based on sound academic grounds or as a means of improving teaching and learning. The geographical distance involved compounded the lack of a clear fit between the two campuses,” said Mr Scott.

He said if the Sefako Makgatho was able to “gather the human and material resources needed to become a viable independent institution, the new arrangement is to be welcomed”.

South African Student Congress president Ntuthuko Makhombothi said the merger to form the University of Limpopo did not make sense both geographically and academically. He said students must be taken on board at every level of the transition to ensure that there were no tensions. In August, the students embarked on violent protests against the proposal to change the name of Medunsa to Sefako Makgatho.