By Gary Eason
BBC News website education editor
Clearing places are expected to be severely limited this year
Scottish pupils will be first when the exam results come out this summer.
Not in their attainment - but in the queue for whatever university places are left through Clearing.
Clearing matches students who did not get the grades they needed to take up their offers from universities with institutions that still have vacancies.
It is expected to be a scramble this year, because of the shortage of places - and the Highers results will be published two weeks ahead of A-levels.
Figures from the admissions service, Ucas, show some 50,000 more people have applied to go to university in UK this year than last.
This is about 16 times the total extra number of first year undergraduate places available.
No need to wait
Traditionally the Highers results always come out first but this year the time gap is wider than usual.
Last year, Scottish pupils learnt how well they had done on Tuesday 5 August, and those in England, Wales and Northern Ireland got their A-level results on Thursday 14 August.
In 2009 the Highers will be out on 5 August again - this year it is a Wednesday. But the A-levels will not appear until Thursday 20 August, more than two weeks later.
Officially Clearing opens when the results appear - so the official lists of Scottish institutions' vacancies will be in action on the 5th, those elsewhere on the 20th.
But in practice students can start contacting universities as soon as they have their results - and universities themselves say people do not need to wait until Clearing opens.
And of course applications can be and are made across borders, albeit with the lion's share of university courses and students being in England.
Ordinarily the head start in Scotland might not matter, as fewer than 2,000 who live in Scotland apply to study elsewhere in the UK at all each year, let alone through Clearing.
But with the number of vacancies available expected to be a fraction of the norm, it assumes a greater significance.
The government has been accused of "sleepwalking into a crisis" over the number of places available this year.
It is understood that the secretary of state who now has responsibility for higher education in England, Lord Mandelson, has demanded that his officials come up with a solution.
There are various possible scenarios, given the squeeze on the public purse:
- the cap on student recruitment could be lifted - but without any extra funding
- there might be some extra funding for expansion - but with universities also having to cover the costs
- a limited number of extra places might be "funded" - with money taken from elsewhere in the higher education budget
Needless to say none of these is very palatable from the perspectives of the institutions or student leaders, who fear a dilution of the quality of courses.
Another suggestion that has been mooted is to raise the amount of part-time study people can undertake while still claiming unemployment benefit.
A sure sign of a "recession effect" in the higher level of applications this year is that the increase is greater among more mature applicants, perhaps seeking to enhance or reposition their skills.
There are 7% more applicants aged under 20 but 22% more over-25s on average across the UK (25% in England).
So whatever is done to make more places available will go some way towards placating student - and parent - electors.