There is a strong push to encourage university students to pursue studies in science, technology and engineering, but there are not enough first-year places to meet the demand.
This was highlighted last year, when a woman was killed in a stampede at the University of Johannesburg after a crowd of thousands waited outside the gates of the university trying to get one of the few places left. With very high youth unemployment, a university degree is often seen as a way to ensure employment.
Unisa, South Africa’s largest university, is a distance-learning institution, but according to its enrolment figures from 2009 to 2011, it has the lowest enrolment numbers in its colleges of agriculture and environmental sciences and science, technology and engineering. According to Unisa's website, nearly 30 000 students are studying science-related subjects, out of a total of more than 130 000.
The campus, launched during National Science Week, offers state-of-the-art facilities and would enable teaching and learning science in a world-class facility, Unisa principal and vice-chancellor Prof Mandla Makhanya said at the opening.
“We have chosen the first day of National Science Week as a fitting day for the launch of the Unisa science campus to highlight Unisa as a destination of choice for the study of science – including agriculture and environmental sciences – engineering and technology," said Makhanya on Tuesday.
Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom, who gave the keynote address at the opening, said: "Unisa is using open distance e-learning to make studying, most often restricted to brick and mortar laboratories and lecture theatres, available to students whose circumstances would otherwise preclude a career in science and technology."
He said it would “give a tremendous boost to the ability of the department of science and technology to fund and direct research and human capital development in a strategic and co-ordinated manner”.
Unisa spokesperson Martin Ramotshela said the campus was located on the old Unisa Florida Campus, previously Technikon SA.
"The refurbishment of the building, including construction of additional buildings and state-of-the-art laboratories including equipment, has cost close to R1-billion," he said, adding that the funding had come from university coffers "as well as other external funders".
"The very nature of open distance e-learning makes it possible for both undergraduate and postgraduate students to enrol for science-related qualifications wherever they are," Unisa says on its website. With its new campus it could offer facilities "not generally associated with open distance e-learning institutions".