Giving away things for free is the Scottish Parliament's raison d'etre, quipped political strategist and former adviser to the Blair government John McTernan at the Scottish Conservatives' higher education conference last week.
But Scotland came one step closer last week to introducing a payment for higher education when the head of one of the country's most prestigious universities joined calls for charging. And NUS Scotland said it was prepared to consider some form of contribution to the cost of HE.
Anton Muscatelli, the principal of Glasgow University who, like Mr McTernan, was speaking at the Conservatives' conference, called for a "graduate contribution", based on the ability to pay, to be introduced to Scotland within a year.
Meanwhile, Liam Burns, president of the NUS Scotland, which represents 200,000 higher education students, said his union would be willing to discuss some kind of charge - although he listed a number of provisos. These included higher levels of funding from the Scottish Government; additional money from business; and financial support for poorer students.
The last also formed part of Professor Muscatelli's proposal: some of the money raised through the graduate contribution would pay for scholarships, he said.
A graduate contribution would not be the same as a graduate tax, stressed Professor Muscatelli. A tax was unrelated to the cost of education, with some paying more than others, but a graduate contribution would be related both to earnings and the cost of the course.
"If you had a graduate contribution that was flat-rated across all disciplines, that would imply a social worker would end up paying the same as a doctor or a banker. Would that be fair? It's a question of equity."
But one way or another, students would have to pay, Professor Muscatelli insisted.
Public funding had kept Scottish universities competitive but severe budget constraints lay ahead, he said. The demand for the skills produced by higher education was increasing, with jobs created in the OECD countries tending to be at graduate level or above, while semi-skilled jobs were on the wane. Scottish universities also had to remain competitive with other nations, including England, where the Browne review into the future funding of higher education would remove the cap on tuition fees for English students, he predicted.
"The demand for the skills produced by higher education will continue to grow in the next 10 to 20 years," he said.
"Universities' research and knowledge exchange will also play a vital role in economic recovery and long-term economic growth in Scotland. The challenge is then how to find the funding to deliver this. There are only two options left if 100 per cent public funding is not possible: graduate taxation or a graduate contribution."
There was a way, however, that students could get more "bang" for their newly-invested "buck", according to Professor Muscatelli.
One criticism of universities was that they put too much emphasis on research and not enough on teaching. But there was no incentive for the universities to focus on the student experience when they were simply allocated funding by the Scottish Government for a set number of students.
"Research is the main area where we can and do compete, but what if you extended that to teaching?" he asked.
For their first couple of years at university, students should be able to move between institutions more easily and the money should flow with them, giving universities an incentive to focus more of their time and energy on teaching.
"This would allow the best universities to attract more students," he said.
A Scottish Government spokes-man said the Education Secretary, Michael Russell, had initiated a debate involving Government, universities and students to find a "uniquely Scottish" solution to how higher education will be paid for in future.
"The Cabinet Secretary," he said, "has made clear he wants to ensure all sensible ideas, no matter how radical, are given a chance to be aired. Only one measure has been ruled out - tuition fees."
Emma Seith email@example.com.