Appalling results in South African school-leaving examinations will leave universities competing for a dwindling pool of qualified would-be students this year.
Fewer than half of the 511,000 pupils who sat the examinations passed, and only 12.5 per cent achieved a university exemption - about the same percentage as the previous year but with fewer students sitting in 1999.
The country's 36 universities and technikons, plus more than a dozen private providers, have only 63,725 potential new students to share between them. In anticipation of competition, top universities have been pouring money into marketing campaigns.
The decline is a blow to South Africa's higher education sector, which had been hoping for an improvement in performance from a now-stable school system.
Historically, black institutions, which have been steadily losing students to formerly white universities, will be particularly hard hit and questions are bound to be raised about the viability of some of them - especially as education minister Kader Asmal is planning rationalisation.
It is also bad news for formerly white universities, which are struggling to expand numbers and increase proportions of black students, and for private institutions that depend on student fees.
At least one institution, the University of the Western Cape, has decided to scrap university exemption as an entry requirement in some fields this year, raising fears that it may be forced to lower degree standards.
Science faculties and medicine will be hard hit, with pass rates down in several science subjects: just 43 per cent passed mathematics. Professor Asmal has promised to focus on low performance subjects and has appointed University of Cape Town mathematics professor Michael Kahn as a part-time adviser.
But universities are becoming increasingly impatient with the school system. And the problems they face with students are not just about numbers, says Tom Lodge, head of politics at the University of the Wi****ersrand.
"Getting a university exemption is a modest achievement. Passing English as a second language in school doesn't guarantee literacy or competence in written English. Asking professors to teach basic literacy is like asking surgeons to give flu injections."
With fewer potential black students with science subjects, "calls for medical faculties to open up more to black students are whistling in the wind".
Professor Lodge added that universities had gone as far as they could to transform their student populations. "All the students who are teachable are in the system and there is nothing more we can do. Universities are not here to be secondary schools."
Ihron Rensburg, a deputy director-general in the national department of education, disagrees. He believes there are sufficient numbers of school-leavers to fill first-year places, and that universities should look elsewhere for reasons for falling student numbers.