Shortfalls in student aid are threatening the South African Government's equity and access goals.
Student support is failing to keep up with growing demand for higher education as improving school results drive up the numbers of poor people qualifying for tertiary study.
The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) probably needs double the R900 million (£80 million) it awarded this year.
Many poor students who receive partial funding are being forced to drop out or struggle to pay their way - some rely on charitable soup kitchens to survive when the money runs out.
Piyushi Kotecha, chief executive of the South African University Vice-Chancellors' Association, said: "The implications of funding shortfalls for student access and for the financial stability of institutions are serious."
The number of students in higher education grew from 473,000 in 1993 to 674,000 in 2002, the result of a school-leaving pass rate that soared from 49 per cent in 1999 to 73 per cent last year.
Pupils improved in disadvantaged black areas as well as at privileged schools. This has resulted in the proportion of often poor black students in higher education rising from 40 per cent to 60 per cent in the past decade.
South Africa has to decide whether to limit admissions according to money available for full-cost bursaries and loans, and risk falling short of equity and access targets; or open access to all school-leavers who qualify by freeing up more state and private sector funding.