Are top-up fees the way to block the brain drain?
It may be in a whisper, but questions are being asked about how Scotland can remain competitive on the UK and the international scene if, as many expect, the limit on annual fees in England is soon raised and universities there can collect a healthy pound;7,000 - or more - from every undergraduate enrolled. Fears of falling behind and of losing top scholars to institutions outside Scotland have been revived.
Although Scotland's students are not charged top-up fees, the legal framework is in place to do so. In 2005, Holyrood passed a bill that would allow the introduction of top-up fees, although the Scottish Government continues to maintain its opposition in principle.
Last year, there was a rash of calls for students to begin paying something towards the cost of higher education. In September, Lord Sutherland, former head of Universities Scotland, said tuition fees should be reintroduced to improve student support for those entering higher education from the poorest backgrounds.
Then Sir Andrew Cubie, who led the committee that recommended the original scrapping of tuition fees in 2000, called for a graduate tax. Critics lambasted him for trying to "turn back the clock", but the debate rolled on.
Even the National Union of Students in Scotland is coming round to the notion. Its president, Liam Burns, says the union is now officially open to discussion about a graduate tax after a motion passed at its last conference. "We're willing to look at the idea," he explains. "We have said for quite a while that the review down south is going to have implications for Scotland. It's not in our interests not to have well- funded institutions. If we leave this too long, we will end up with top-up fees - and that becomes a sensationalised debate."
But others, such as the University and College Union Scotland, remain resolutely committed to free education, although Mary Senior, its Scottish officer, accepts that there should be a full review of university funding. She adds, however, that "there is no political consensus in Scotland for the introduction of tuition fees".
Mr Burns is nevertheless calling on the political parties to go into next year's Holyrood elections with "a tangible promise" to students. "You can't take on a four-year mandate without being clear on how you get more money into students' pockets and deliver a sustainable sector," he says.
And there is further evidence that the "political consensus" may not hold out much longer. At the beginning of the year, Education Secretary Michael Russell declared that "fees are not on our agenda". By last month, he was admitting to the NUS Scotland conference that, while he continued to rule out tuition fees, he was now open to the idea of a graduate tax.
The bottom line is not the only aspect of universities that could suffer if student contributions remain off limits. Davena Rankin, commercial manager at Glasgow Caledonian University and Conservative candidate for Glasgow South, fears a brain drain of the best Scottish academics to a better-resourced sector south of the border.
"I think there is a growing problem. In the past, what we have seen is that our academics have gone overseas for a year or two but come back to this country. With the way funding is going, they may not come back at all."
Ms Rankin adds: "It's quite easy to move a research team from one university to another. I think that will increase. A few academics I know, who are some of Scotland's brightest minds from a research point of view, are thinking of leaving.
"If we lose our best researchers and our research standing falls, it becomes harder to recruit overseas students. Then they'll have even less money, and that problem just perpetuates itself."
When Scotland threw out fees in 2000, just two years after the Blair Government introduced them, it was hoped that the move would lead to wider participation. Yet data released last week by the Higher Education Statistics Agency reveals that the abolition of fees has had no impact at all. The proportion of young entrants to degree courses from the poorest social groups has actually decreased slightly in the five years to 2008, from 26.9 per cent in 2003-04 to 26.3 per cent in 2007-08; in England the number from these groups has risen during the same period, from 28.2 per cent to 29.4 per cent.
Yet, despite the fears of people like Ms Rankin, there is some debate over whether English tuition fees have proved to be the "cash bonanza" for which universities had hoped. In fact, the Browne review of HE south of the border has already found that fees have done nothing to reduce higher education's demands on the public purse in England.
To find out where they stand, the Tripartite Advisory Group, a body comprising the Scottish Government, the Scottish Funding Council and Universities Scotland, began an investigation in March into whether the funding of universities north of the border remains competitive.
A spokesman for Universities Scotland says universities are "reconciled to the likelihood that the outcome of that work is unlikely to show the apocalyptic gap in funding between Scotland and England that some previously predicted".
Mr Russell has proposed a series of discussions with the sector over funding. Although the timescale is unclear, the indications are that it will be mid-2011 before any decisions are taken - effectively after the Holyrood elections. According to government statistics, there were 272,625 registered students in Scotland in 2009, more than 5 per cent of the total population. The student vote is strong, and all parties will fear making any bold statements about fee contributions before polling day.
It is telling that one of the few principals willing to stick her head above the parapet is a personal advocate of free education. "As a German, at a personal level, I'm against fees because it was written in the German constitution that education at all levels should be free," says Petra Wend, principal of Queen Margaret University.
"However, given the financial realities facing the sector, we need to consider all options. Indeed, fees have now been partially introduced in Germany, because it was realised that public funding is not enough any more to keep their universities competitive in the world."
This article is adapted from last week's Times Higher Education.