University tuition fees continue to be ruled out by all and sundry in Scotland - even after English universities were given the all-clear to charge unlimited fees.
But Education Secretary Michael Russell is coming under increasing pressure to find an alternative which would allow Scottish universities to remain competitive, without imposing punitive charges on students.
Former BP chief executive Lord Browne, in his review of higher education funding and student finance published this week, called for the pound;3,290 cap on annual fees at English universities to be scrapped. He advises a free market in fees with no upper limit, although incremental levies would be imposed on universities charging more than pound;6,000.
He acknowledged that graduates would be paying back more in tuition fees and maintenance loans than at present, but insisted they would not be left with "mortgage-style debts" under a system that would only demand payment from earners on more than pound;21,000 a year compared with pound;15,000 at present.
At Westminster this week, UK Business Secretary Vince Cable backed Lord Browne's findings and insisted that, in Scotland, "realities are going to have to be faced". Meanwhile, influential figures in Scottish universities have outlined a stark choice between maintaining their institutions' strong reputation and the preservation of free higher education.
But Scotland's Education Secretary dismissed Lord Browne's approach out of hand in a radio interview this week.
"This is not massive new finance for higher education (in England)," Mr Russell said. "This is money that's going to start coming from graduates and from students and stop coming from government. We have a different way of doing things in Scotland."
Having already ruled out upfront tuition fees earlier this year, he promised a "uniquely long-term Scottish solution". He did not provide details but did stress a need to "shorten the learning journey" - days after The TESS revealed he wanted more students to go straight into second year at university.
Mr Russell has been praised for setting in motion a green paper, to be published in December, but influential voices including Sir Andrew Cubie, who carried out his own review of student finance in 1999, and Universities Scotland director Andrew Sim fear it will not come soon enough to counterbalance the savage cuts looming over universities.
Sir Andrew has suggested that income from a graduate contribution would not start flowing to the universities until 2012-13.
The principal of Glasgow University, Anton Muscatelli, recently spoke out in favour of graduates "giving something back" towards their higher education costs - on the basis of ability to pay - in order to keep Scottish universities competitive, but ruled out upfront tuition fees.
Opposition parties in Scotland have similar views, with Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith describing the case for some form of student contribution as "overwhelming", with her preference for deferred fees rather than a graduate tax.
The Scottish Government made clear that the Education Secretary had ruled out only upfront tuition fees, and would consider "all sensible ideas, no matter how radical". Although the SNP scrapped the so-called graduate endowment in 2008, it was set at a flat rate, whereas the type of graduate contribution many are proposing now would be based on ability to pay.
Sir Andrew, whose review of student finance led to the scrapping of tuition fees in Scotland in 2000, two years after they were introduced by the UK Labour Government, believes there is no choice but to ask graduates to pay towards their education.
He said this week that university education should be "free at the point of consumption". Any contribution demanded of graduates should not discourage applications to university: those on high incomes should pay more and there must be clearly-understood support for less advantaged students.
Urgent action was required, he said, with English universities likely to benefit if the Westminster Government coalition acted on Lord Browne's recommendations.
Other Browne review recommendations
- Part-time students should have equal entitlement to financial support as full-time students, a move described as a "landmark" by the Open University.
- Funding should match the rising demand for higher education, with a 10 per cent increase in student places factored into the system over the next four years.
- Careers advice needs a "radical overhaul", so that all schools benefit from the kind currently given in the private sector.