Students walk past the Unisa's Parow campus in Cape Town. Picture: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)
Unisa has warned that just like any other university it cannot enrol all new applicants qualifying for its courses.

For the first time in its history, the distance-learning institution rejected thousands of qualifying applicants citing space limitations.

This was one the issues that fuelled the students’ strike at key campuses last week. The SRC demanded admission of all qualifying students.

As one of the concessions to end the strike, Unisa agreed to take in 25000 more qualifying applicants. This is in addition to the 54434 admitted for first-year studies.

It had received more than 540000 applications, the majority of which were from would-be first years.

Unisa spokesperson Martin Ramotshela said the institution could no longer admit students using its own discretion.

“This thing of enrolment (limitation) may have started a year or two ago. We have what we call the enrolment planning policy framework, which is the policy position of the Department of Higher Education and Training that says that every one of the 26 public universities must be subjected to a limit in terms of the number of students that they can take,” Ramotshela said.

“The one reason is that you should not bite more than you can chew. The number of students you can take must be in proportion to your capacity.

“If you take more than you can handle in terms of your staff capacity and your resources, students are going to suffer,” Ramotshela said.

The institution was limited to 380000 students a year. These included those studying for higher certificates, undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.

Ramotshela said Unisa has received complaints from students who were not receiving proper service from the institution.

“Even if we're a distance institution, we must still teach. People have contact with their lecturers through tutorials, one-on-ones and chat rooms. People must be assessed, they must still write exams. If you're going to carry an infinite number, you're not going to service it adequately. It’s very risky,” Ramotshela said.

He would not be drawn to comment on whether the increased demand for enrolment was linked to the government's decision to introduce cost-free education for those from families whose annual income was less than R350 000.

“Whether free education has encouraged more people to want to study, that is a political thing,” he said.

“Admissions are still governed by this policy framework that universities are not supposed to carry more than they should.

“Remember, even the government's stance is that they want more people going to TVET colleges than universities because certain technical skills are required by the economy.”