Low aspirations of local people mean South London's six universities face a struggle to attract the 8,700 extra students a year needed to meet government targets, according to a report by consultants KPMG.
Population growth means institutions must raise the ambitions of an extra 4,000 students every year just to keep participation at present levels, the study found.
They must persuade 53 per cent more students than at present into higher education nationally to meet the government target of 50 per cent of young people experiencing higher education by 2010.
Rick Trainor, vice-chancellor of the University of Greenwich, said: "The 50 per cent level can only be achieved in London if numerous pockets of extremely low participation in South London are reached effectively. As those not in higher education in South London are overwhelmingly local in their orientation, their local universities are best equipped to stimulate demand and enable their entry into higher education."
Problem areas include south Lewisham and south Greenwich.
The study - commissioned by Kingston, Greenwich and South Bank universities plus Goldsmiths College, St George's Hospital Medical School and the University of Surrey, Roehampton - has been passed to higher education secretary Margaret Hodge.
Ben Pimlott, warden of Goldsmiths, said: "The study's results are even more shocking than expected. What they show is a massive lack of awareness of higher education opportunities among precisely those groups the government has been aiming to reach, located in the parts of the capital that need the most encouragement if the government's high targets are to be met."
Under the Partnerships for Progression initiative, universities are responsible for raising the aspirations of local people rather than enrolling them. Nevertheless, one-third of students from South London study locally.