A saliva test of 800 students at one of South Africa's top historically black universities found that 25 per cent were HIV positive.
Confirmation at the University of Durban-Westville that the nation's brightest and most ambitious are as much at risk from the epidemic as the rest of sub-Saharan Africa's population is just one more higher education problem facing the newly elected ANC government.
"We have really not tackled it (the implication of HIV/Aids) to the extent that we should", David Woods, vice-chancellor of Rhodes University, the historically white English-language university in the Eastern Cape, admitted in London this week. His colleague Brenda Gourley, vice-chancellor of the University of Durban, was one of the first to alert South Africa's higher education sector to the impact of HIV/Aids on universities.
Durban will host a seminar organised by the Association of Commonwealth Universities on the non-medical issues on the eve of November's Commonwealth heads of government meeting. Organisers hope the event will guide universities in other Commonwealth countries with emerging HIV/Aids problems and launch a Commonwealth Knowledge Network to explore the social, economic and developmental causes and consequences of HIV/Aids.
In their plans, South Africa's universities have predicted an overall 12 per cent rise in student numbers, but Dr Woods warned that this was unrealistic against an actual decline in enrolments.
Fewer were enrolling at South Africa's historically black universities, with a proportionately larger fall in first-year students. A funding formula based on historic student numbers and a finance minister opposed to bailing out black universities will create a crisis for the new government.
Dr Woods, a microbiologist, warned that South Africa's universities were tending to reproduce technikons' programme-based vocational courses to try to deliver what they believe the government wants.
"There is a huge rush into producing what the universities perceive business wants, rather than producing people who can think and analyse. The department of higher education has now picked up on this and is saying 'do not all go down this road'," Dr Woods said.