The view of Unisa from the freeway at the south-west entrance to Pretoria.
The view of Unisa from the freeway at the south-west entrance to Pretoria.
An artwork paying tribute to HIV/Aids victims and symbolising a supportive community is just above the university’s cycad garden.
An artwork paying tribute to HIV/Aids victims and symbolising a supportive community is just above the university’s cycad garden.
The well-stocked library has become a resource for students to find information speedily and easily.
The well-stocked library has become a resource for students to find information speedily and easily.
The library stairway in the atrium.
The library stairway in the atrium.
Unisa is an imposing entrance to the capital city - and has been in Pretoria for 100 years - having moved from Cape Town in 1918. Two years after it moved it changed its name from University of the Cape of Good Hope to the University of South Africa (Unisa).

In those early days the university was in offices in town - two of its buildings are still in Skinner Street.

The campus in the south-east entrance to the capital city was built on ground donated by the City Council and opened with the Theo van Wijk Building in 1973. Since then other buildings were completed, lastly the library. The Sunnyside campus was a fairly recent development to accommodate the registration of students on site.

Today this distance education university has nearly 400000 students. At a recent meeting with the university’s retirees, Vice-Chancellor Professor Mandla Makhanya said: “Leading and managing a higher education institution in South Africa today, or anywhere in the world, has become an increasingly complex, uncertain business. Sometimes I think we need the gift of prophecy, the Wisdom of Solomon and the courage of Daniel.

“Universities have become highly politicised environments and ongoing disruptions are, in fact, simply another dynamic we have to contend with, often daily. The challenges I shared with you last year have continued into this year, and to some extent, they are more complex.”

Addressing the Research Awards ceremony earlier this year, Professor Makhanya said: “Our Research, Postgraduate Studies, Innovation and Commercialisation Portfolio provides a space where innovative thinkers flourish. Driven by a desire to both explore new worlds and to apply new ideas to real-world problems, research at Unisa is not conducted only by academics and graduate students. Research opportunities are also provided for professional and administrative staff, making research a truly university-wide enterprise. Our commitment to advancing women in research, especially black women, is a matter of pride and is bearing fantastic results. Fundamental to our approach is a commitment to excellence and support for our early career researchers, emerging research leaders and researchers from designated groups. It is quite simply the right thing to do if we are to meet and overcome the challenges posed by our developmental state, and the imperative for genuine and lasting transformation.

He added: “Despite quite rapid growth in outputs, research emanating from Africa stands at just over 2% of the global total with approximately 1% of that total emanating from Sub-Saharan Africa. This is not good enough. We are duty-bound to claim our voices and intellectual spaces in national continental and global discourse and practice.”

Next to its qualifications, the jewel in the crown of Unisa's services is its library. As the largest academic library in Africa, it is acknowledged as one of the best-endowed with information resources, information technology and expert staff and is a sought-after resource for researchers.

The Unisa Library came into being in 1946 when Unisa introduced distance learning as a mode of tuition. It now contains nearly 2million items.

It has branches in Cape Town, Durban, East London, Ekurhuleni, Ethiopia, Florida, Johannesburg, Nelspruit, Pietermaritzburg, Polokwane, Pretoria (main campus), Rustenburg, Graduate School of Business Leadership (Midrand) and Sunnyside. Books and material can be ordered online by students and other researchers.

Training is offered free of charge to registered Unisa students and staff in the use of library resources to enable clients to find information easily and speedily.

Postgraduate degree students have access to all library resources and their own personal librarian. Library research space is also reserved for postgraduate students.

Professor Makhanya is quoted as saying: “Research graduates included 296 doctoral graduates in 2016 compared to 235 in 2015, 268 in 2014 and 201 in 2013. This is a very credible performance and means that Unisa compares favourably with research-intensive universities in doctoral production. The proportion of African graduates increased to more than 70%.”

Today the University teaches via online and print learning - students can download study material and submit assignments. E-tutoring is provided for many courses.