President Jacob Zuma has signed the Higher Education Amendment Act, which gives Minister Blade Nzimande greater powers to intervene in university matters and furthers the government's higher education transformation plans.
"I am very excited," said MP Charles Kekana, whip of Parliament's committee on higher education, on Wednesday.
"We have been working very hard on it."
The central theme of the act, signed into law on Tuesday, was to make universities more inclusive, and to move away from old patterns of universities based on racial or language lines and to recognise African schools of thought and knowledge, explained Kekana.
Historically, universities were considered Afrikaans (like University of Pretoria), liberal (like Rhodes University) or black (like University of Fort Hare), and the act was expected to help change that.
It was also to make sure that the thread of transformation ran through all sectors of university life — from administrative staff, to students, to lecturers — to make sure that universities were representative of the population and were sensitive to gender and disability needs.
The act would help monitor how institutions spent their money and avoid conflicts of interest.
"Universities receive subsidies and they must account for it. They can't simply use institutional autonomy," said Kekana.
The act comes as students and universities prepare for the new academic year, following two years of robust Fees Must Fall protests which have challenged the way higher education is funded, as well as the language policies of some universities.
Kekana said that giving the minister of higher education greater powers was overdue because it was no longer enough to expect the institutions' councils to fix problems.
"When something goes wrong, people don't turn to the [university] council, they turn to the government," said Kekana.
It would also make institutions more Afrocentric in their curriculum, without rejecting international academic work and discoveries.
The amendments also allow the minister to declare new public institutions, and to confer higher learning status on institutions that are not necessarily classified as universities, but are providing more expanded studies.
It also allows the minister to issue ministerial directives.