Austria's policy of accepting into higher education any home student with a basic high-school leaving certificate has come to an end after a European Court ruled that equal rights must be applied to all European Union students.
The decision means that Austrians will no longer be guaranteed places on the most popular courses because of the large numbers expected to apply from abroad, forcing a numerus clausus on subjects such as medicine and business studies.
The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg ruled this month that Austrian legislation on admission to universities "contravenes community law".
Current legislation allows Austrians free access to higher education but sets out a number of requirements for students from other EU countries.
Students from other member states must provide Austrian universities with proof that they have fulfilled the conditions of access to the chosen course of study in their own country, such as success in an entrance examination or obtaining a sufficient grade.
Francis Jacobs, Court of Justice Advocate-General, said the legislation adversely affected students from other member states more than Austrian students and therefore led to discrimination on the grounds of nationality.
Austria now fears that a flood of EU students - in particular from neighbouring Germany, where the number of students accepted to courses is limited - Jwill cause further problems in an already overburdened system.
Before the ruling, Austria's Education Ministry argued that changing the law to allow free access for all EU citizens would upset the education system's financial balance.
Mr Jacobs, however, believes that adhering to EU laws will barely affect the country. "Mobility of students is a goal of the EU. Other member countries are likely to draw many more students than Austria."
Just days before the ruling, hundreds of potential students queued outside universities in the capital to ensure they secured a place. This followed an announcement that laws introduced on July 8 would allow universities to limit places in seven faculties: medicine, dentistry, veterinary science, biology, pharmacy, psychology and business studies.
Education Minister Elisabeth Gehrer said the numerus clausus legislation would not threaten places already secured by students, some of whom camped outside university buildings overnight to wait for enrolment offices to open.
The ministry believes that as many as 80,000 Germans unable to secure places at home will look to "flee" to Austria to further their education each year.
Vienna's Medical University, one of three in Austria, said it would enrol on a "first come, first served" basis after the European Court ruling, and would limit the number of students accepted on first-year courses to 1,560.
Austrian MEP Reinhard Rack criticised the court's decision. "They have lost all sense of the middle ground between what is legally necessary and what European citizens feel is reasonable," he said.
Foreign students account for about 30,000 of Austria's 185,500 students, with the largest groups coming from Italy and Germany.