Undergraduates at public varsities are in financial strife because they use their student loans to help their families at home, student group Kesatuan Mahasiswa Malaysia (Kesatuan) said.
"Most of these students are from struggling families, so besides studying they also assist their families financially by sending home half or more of their student loan disbursement," Kesatuan chairperson Azzan Aznan Abdul Rahim said.
"This means there is very little left for them to survive on in the next four or five months," he said in a statement.
A survey on 25,632 undergraduates from public universities by NGO Muslim Volunteers Malaysia showed that three out of four students said they have been in situations where they were too broke to eat.
The students also say that they mostly survive on RM5 a day for meals, eating instant noodles or rice with fried egg and gravy.
Students receive RM3,500 per semester in loan from the National Higher Education Fund (PTPTN), which they use to pay for tuition fees, residential college fees, books, transport, meals and other expenses for up to five months.
To assist the students, Azzan Aznan said the government must provide universities with a list of students who come from families earning RM3,000 a month or less.
Universities can then offer partial or full fee waivers and financial assistance to these students, he said.
Alternatively, he said, PTPTN can consider raising the quantum disbursed to students given the rising cost of living, especially for those on campuses in the Klang Valley.
Kesatuan also urges universities to provide more opportunities for part-time employment on campus for students.
Kesatuan's statement was supported by 19 student groups including from Universiti Malaya, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Universiti Malaya, Universit Islam Antarabangsa, Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris, Universiti Teknologi Mara and Universiti Utara Malaysia.
Undergraduates at pubic varsities are often required to take on up to six subjects per semester, or up to 24 hours of compulsory lectures and tutorial attendance a week. This does not include independent study, assignments and lab work.
Undergraduate degrees require about 120 credits to graduate, depending on the field, with each course carrying two to four credits.
Those residing at on campus residential colleges are also often required to participate in extra-curricular activities.
In contrast, students in Australian undergraduate programmes can take on an average four subjects per semester to graduate with the required credits in the same number of years.