Students are voting with their feet and leaving South Africa's historically black universities. The exodus has put into question their long-term survival.
University registration for 1999 is all but over and has revealed a further decline in enrolments at institutions outside urban areas and those whose quality is perceived to be below par.
In the two years to 1998, the number of students at the country's 21 state universities dropped by more than 30,000 to 352,000, according to the South African Universities Vice-Chancellors' Association. It appears to be badly down again this year.
This has profound financial implications for institutions in a funding system that depends largely on student numbers and that is already struggling under a cash squeeze and student debt.
Jairam Reddy, former chairman of the National Commission on Higher Education, said a "quite dramatic" drop in enrolments - and talk of closing some universities - made it imperative to look seriously at regional co-operation and rationalisation.
Experts believe several factors contribute to the decline, including a shrinking pool of school-leavers with good enough marks to get automatic right of university entry, inability to afford fees, high graduate unemployment, clampdowns on non-paying students, and increased competition from private institutions.
The drop in numbers at historically black universities is believed to be caused in part by their remoteness and concern over the value of their degrees.
Vice-chancellors' leader Piy-ushi Kotecha said a Human Sciences Research Council survey showed that 56 per cent of graduates from former white higher education institutions found work compared with 25 per cent from historically black ones.
Technikons have not suffered a similar general decline.
"They are enjoying a higher status these days, similar to that of universities," Professor Reddy said. "Allied to that, a growing number of people are perceiving technikons as geared to the world of work and finding employment."
Education departments have been hardest hit. Wendy MacAllister, director of the University of the Wi****ersrand communications service, said: "A distinct drop-off in education enrolments is worrying us hugely. If this trend continues, in five years South Africa will have a teacher shortage."
A spokesman for the department of education said the government had "no plans to close down any higher education institution".