School-leavers applying to universities and colleges through the clearing system this summer face a "perfect storm" of a cut in the number of places and a student stampede before tuition fees are introduced south of the border.
Current higher education policies prompted by funding cuts have restricted the total number of university places, but this year more students than normal have applied, warned John Field, professor of lifelong learning at Stirling University, this week.
The result will be a "much tighter squeeze" on the number of places available in the autumn, he predicts in a study of higher education and the recession.
Since 2007, demand for full-time university places and full-time higher education in colleges has risen sharply, the study found. There was also evidence that more students were staying in higher education for longer.
"It's going to be very difficult for schools. The main message must be to stay in touch with universities and have clear communication with candidates. There has also got to be a strong emphasis on the quality of information given to young people by careers staff," Professor Field said.
The number of young people based in Scotland applying to universities and colleges rose from 35,429 in 2006 to 46,347 last year, according to the Ucas admissions service.
In 2010, out of 32,248 candidates accepted in Scotland, 1,935 found their places through clearing - a reduction of 527 on the 2009 figure, but similar to 2006 and 2007 levels.
Clearing would be "tough" this year, so candidates who did not get their required grades or preferred university place would need to be more flexible, Professor Field said.
"If someone can't get into a university then they should really look at college and the option of the Higher National Diploma," he said.
Brian Cooklin, a former president of School Leaders Scotland, said that young people already had to be "adaptable" in the way they responded to university and college entry requirements.
"Universities have to be transparent in the way they award places for their courses, and consistent in the feedback they give to candidates," he said.
Universities make their decisions about entry requirements independently and "separate from any guidelines", he added.
It was now more likely that the role of sixth year would be investigated as a potential substitute for first year at college or university, Mr Cooklin predicted, since the current pressure on university and college places was caused by a gap in higher education funding.
More students studying part-time might ease the pressure on places, Professor Field said. But he questioned whether universities had the "incentive" to appeal to students wishing to undertake part-time courses.
This autumn there will also be a rush for places south of the border in advance of universities introducing tuition fees from autumn 2012, Professor Field added.
"Normally if you secure a university place the institutions are going to be flexible about when you start, but this time it's the mums and dads who can't afford to be," he said. email@example.com.