Education Secretary Mike Russell told MSPs a rejection of tuition fees lay "at the heart" of the Scottish government's proposals for university funding on 16 December 2010.
Six options were set out in the SNP administration's green paper on higher education, including the state retaining "prime responsibility".
Other proposals include "some form" of graduate contribution and increasing costs for students outside Scotland.
Students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland who go to university in Scotland could face annual fees of up to £6,000.
Further options cover increased donations, support from business and added "efficiency".
Mr Russell said ministers will be guided by the "essential need" for Scotland to remain competitive in the UK and globally.
He said the approach taken by Westminster, which could see students in England facing charges of up to £9,000 a year, is "inappropriate" for Scotland.
The education secretary added: "Higher education is one of our most valuable national assets, it would be wrong of us not to protect its value and enhance its reputation.
"So that is why the state assuming the prime funding responsibility, coupled with this Parliament's rejection of tuition fees, lies at the heart of the paper I am launching today."
Labour education spokesman Des McNulty said: "This document contains no models, no work-out options and very few numbers. It could have been produced months ago. It takes us no further forward."
Conservative education spokeswoman Elizabeth Smith attacked the Scottish government for what she regarded as procrastination over the future of education since it came to power.
Liberal Democrat finance spokesman Jeremy Purvis called on Mr Russell to recognise the inequalities within Scotland.