University lecture hall. Picture: THINKSTOCK

THE two proposed new universities, in the Northern Cape and Mpumalanga, would require at least R16.5bn to be fully fledged institutions in the next five to six years, the Department of Higher Education and Training told MPs on Wednesday.

The two provinces are the only ones in South Africa without universities. Mpumalanga has a population of about 3.6-million and the Northern Cape 1.1-million.

Updating members of the higher education and training portfolio committee about progress on construction of the universities, department deputy director-general Diane Parker said a bid for further funding had been submitted to the Treasury.

Capital investment was a major challenge — something "we are working on … we have put forward a bid and are hoping to get support from the portfolio committee", Ms Parker said.

Treasury spokesman Jabulani Sikhakhane on Wednesday could "neither confirm nor deny" that the Department of Higher Education and Training had requested further funding for the universities.

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan said in his budget speech earlier this year that R300m would be allocated for preparatory work towards the building of the two universities, which are likely to open their doors in the 2014 academic year. Construction work might start before the end of the year or early next year.

Ms Parker said the new universities would require "full support" over a period before they became self-sustaining.

"Government will need to work in partnership with a range of private and public institutions so that it is able to address these and other challenges on the road ahead," Ms Parker said.

Another challenge was that of attracting academics. Earlier this year, Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande suggested that the retirement age of academics needed to be reviewed as part of a broader plan to attract experienced scholars to the two new universities.

Mr Nzimande also said the government would have to consider attracting foreign academics as well as postgraduates who might be interested in taking up teaching roles at the universities.

Last week, Mr Nzimande reiterated his optimism that the two universities would start operating from early 2014.

Education expert Prof Graeme Bloch said on Wednesday that it was still possible for the government to open the two universities by 2014, provided the financial resources were in place.