Poor black students are the likely losers if the South African Government goes ahead with plans to slow the rapid growth in enrolments, and improve drop-out rates, which have soared to 50 per cent.
An Education Department policy document announced that the Government could not afford to fund the high number of students entering the system.
While there is general agreement that recent growth in student enrolments is unsustainable, critics believe that the Government should increase funding before cutting numbers.
Ahmed Essop, deputy director of higher education, said universities did not have the resources to cope with the 20 per cent growth in student enrolment over the past three years. At the current rate of growth, the Government calculates, student numbers will rise from 718,000 in 2003 to more than 900,000 in 2009. But the Education Department says it can afford to pay for only 740,000 students in 2009.
In response to criticism that the proposals backtrack on the commitment of the ruling African National Congress to open the doors of learning to all in the post-apartheid era, Mr Essop said the door remained open but it was "no longer a revolving door".
A survey of students who enrolled in 2000 shows that 30 per cent dropped out at the end of 2000 and that by the end of 2002, half of the students had dropped out.
Richard Pithouse, a research fellow at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and author of a book on university struggles post-apartheid, described the plan as "scandalous". "The Government is rearranging higher education around the needs of the market, in ways that privilege the rich and disadvantage the poor."
* The South African Universities' Vice-Chancellors Association and the Committee of Technikon Principals have merged into a single body called Higher Education South Africa. Its chairman is Barney Pityana, vice-chancellor of the distance-learning University of South Africa.