By Seonag Mackinnon
BBC Scotland education correspondent
Scottish universities may dwindle into 'second-rate institutions'
The call was nothing if not controversial - that MSPS should consider bringing in tuition fees, likely to cost graduates thousands of a pounds a year.
Jeremy Peat, a former economic advisor to the Treasury who now heads the influential think tank the David Hume Institute, said it was a myth that free university degrees helped the less well-off.
Mr Peat has cited research presented to the institute by Frances Cairncross, a member of the first minister's Council of Economic Advisers.
He said: "The main benefits of the policy of no tuition fees are actually going to those from more affluent families because they are taking up the majority of places at university and they are going to the universities which are most expensive, where the subsidy is effectively largest."
In an interview with BBC Scotland Mr Peat, who is also a former member of the funding council for universities, appealed for less well-off university applicants to be given targeted financial help in the form of grants.
And they should also be targeted for better education in primary and secondary, he said, so that more make it through to university.
Dismissing the policy of universal free higher education, he added: "I think there are other ways of helping lower income groups get to university and colleges and stay there, that may be more advantageous to them and may even be cheaper in the long run for our public finances.
"I think it's time for a fresh look at funding of universities particularly given the state of public finances. They are going to be tight for several years ahead. "
The former Scottish Executive scrapped annual fees a decade ago but brought in an endowment charge costing a total of £2,000, payable once graduates were earning salaries.
SNP ministers have since abolished the charge.
Fiona Hyslop, the education secretary, said this week: "This has been a big bonus during a time of recession, not just for students and graduates but parents too. So quite clearly the principle of free education is something we hold very dearly."
Speaking on St Andrews Day 2007 on a public platform at St Andrews University, the first minister put it more strongly: "The rocks will melt with the sun before I will agree to tuition fees."
There is no enthusiasm for fees among senior university staff in Scotland. But privately there is concern that Scottish universities, now renowned around the world, may in the medium to long term dwindle into second rate institutions if the public purse fails to match the fees pouring into English institutions.
That fear is stoked by widespread expectation that fees in England may rise from £3,000 a year to about £5,000, whichever party wins the general election.
Scottish universities fear that what is on their horizon is a round of cuts in public spending.
David Bleiman, Scottish official of the lecturers' union UCU, formerly known as AUT, said tight budgets could have a big impact: "This could put pressure on students because they will be more packed into classes. There could be individual subjects cut at particular universities and the job losses could become compulsory redundancies."