Places in higher education will become increasingly competitive as the effects of the recession bite. Financial pressures will make more young people stay on at school, more seek to enter full-time university study, and more existing students continue to complete honours degrees.
Increasingly, well-qualified applicants will not be able to enter the course or institution of their choice.
The situation opens up the potential of a more flexible, even part-time, approach to promoting lifelong learning, combining work and study in new ways. There will be greater articulation between further and higher education. But so far there is no sign of this agenda gaining ground.
These are just some of the findings presented last week by John Field, of Stirling University, at the annual conference of the Scottish Educational Research Association, where he presented a paper on higher education and the recession.
He predicts that anxieties over the Browne review of student funding in England, the promised green paper in Scotland and the timing of the election mean that critical long-term decisions will be deferred until next summer. "This has obvious disadvantages, but does allow space and time for reflection and debate on the sector's future," he adds.
The case for continuing public investment in higher education is a strong one, he says: in the short term, it reduces welfare costs by effectively disguising youth unemployment and transferring the costs to parents; in the longer term, it promotes competitiveness by upskilling the workforce and underpinning innovation.
But there is no global consensus on how to achieve that at a time of reduced public spending.
In Sweden, where the government views HE as an instrument of labour market policy, it has raised the number of places for 2010 and 2011 by 10,000 and increased the loans and financial support available to students. Others, including the US state of California, have sought to reduce access in order to control or reduce costs.
Scottish Funding Council grants are still the largest single source of income for all HE institutions, other than the Scottish Agricultural College, ranging from just over 28 per cent of all income at St Andrews to 72 per cent at the University of the West of Scotland.
This means that the main option in the current economic situation is to increase overseas recruitment, based on exchange rates that are increasingly favourable for non-EU countries. But if increasing income is a challenging prospect, then cost reduction looks "positively mountainous", says Professor Field.
A more interventionist planning body than the SFC might contemplate transferring funded numbers from universities to colleges, at least for the first two years of study.
"All comparisons of the costs of teaching in universities and colleges point to significant potential for savings. No comparable studies exist that would help us determine how this would affect the quality of the student experience," he adds.
"Further significant cost reductions mean that downward pressures on staff costs are unavoidable," he predicts, given that staff costs account for 55-65 per cent of total expenditure.
Options include targeting "underperforming areas" or securing agreement to salary reductions.
The latter option, Professor Field suggests, has some merit, particularly if targeted at higher-paid members of staff.
"In the 2008-09 financial year, Scottish universities employed just over 400 people who were paid more than pound;100,000 a year; 21, mostly principals, had salaries of over pound;200,000."
These figures may not be surprising to everyone inside the sector, says the professor, but they are potentially troublesome, particularly if one bears in mind popular beliefs about bloated salaries enjoyed by quangocrats: at least 240 people in the universities of Scotland earned more than the chief executive of the SFC.
"A managed package of wage freezes at the middle and lower levels, combined with reductions at top level, might have significant and financial advantages," he adds.
Professor Field concludes: "My own view is that we cannot expect sustainable longer-term solutions without re-examining the role of leadership in public sector institutions more generally.
"At present, I doubt that we have the resources to provide compelling answers to two critical questions about our sector: what are universities for in times of austerity, and what can they contribute to resolving the crisis?"
THE HUMAN ELEMENT
Growing numbers of young people are attending university as part-time students, say higher education staff. And more students than previously are opting to study close to home.
The impact of the current squeeze on budgets is usually interpreted in terms of the likely negative effect on the Scottish Funding Council and other university income, says John Field, professor of lifelong learning at Stirling University. But the views of middle managers and academic staff are often ignored.
Feedback from lecturers in the arts and humanities suggests that students are increasingly opting for specialisms that are linked to careers, leaving less vocational subjects to "the students who are sort of better off, who can perhaps afford to do it".
Others identified trends in institutional practice they feared would damage retention. On rising class sizes, one interviewee said: "You cannot expect to have large classes and one tutor able to do it all."
Managers of student support services expressed concern about the growing demands on the limited sources of financial support available and the strain on counselling services, as more students found that financial pressures were putting a strain on relationships and resilience.