Pupils with "a group of top-class Advanced Highers" should be able to skip the first year of university and there should be greater flexibility in the length of degrees, according to the Scottish Conservatives.
Four-year degrees might even be economically unsustainable, according to John McTernan, a political strategist and former adviser to the Blair government.
The comments were made at a conference this week in Edinburgh organised by the Scottish Conservatives, "Higher Education in Scotland: Fit for the 21st Century?"
Liz Smith, the Scottish Conservatives' education spokeswoman, said: "Why should we assume that pupils with a group of top-class Advanced Highers necessarily must begin a university course in the first year, rather than go into the second year, and why should we not allow greater variation in the length of degree courses in Scotland?
"Not only is flexibility educationally the right thing to do, but it could, we believe, also be more financially efficient."
Bernard King, convener of Universities Scotland and principal of Abertay University, made a plea, however, to retain the four-year degree, because "a number of schools" did not run Advanced Higher courses or the Scottish Baccalaureate.
Any decision to shorten degrees would have to be instigated by the Scottish Government, said Mr McTernan, and it would require a policy debate and decision by the Government to fund them for three years. Universities would find it hard to shake off their historical commitment to four-year courses, he believed.
Education Secretary Michael Russell has declared himself open to "all sensible ideas" about the future of higher education; that included three-year degrees, said a Scottish Government spokesman.
On Wednesday, Mr Russell told the Scottish Learning Festival that too few universities were doing enough to recognise the Scottish Baccalaureate. Some already give pupils with good Advanced Highers or the Baccalaureate entry into certain second year courses.
But Nora Senior, vice chair of the Scottish Chamber of Commerce, called for a change in the prevailing culture in Scotland, which saw the academic valued over the vocational.
It was "just snobbery" that saw students channelled towards a university education, she said; graduates were coming out with first class degrees but their written work was not grammatically correct and they could not punctuate.
Curriculum for Excellence had the potential to improve the situation, she believed, but business needed more information and detail about it.
"There has been no real engagement on this front to date," she told the HE conference.
Pupils also needed better careers advice at school, she argued: "The careers service has got a lot to answer for. It's not enough to do a psychometric test and say 'you'd be good for banking'. The careers service does not know enough about the type and variety of work out there. They do not align their advice with skills and suggest alternatives to the academic route."
Students did not regret going on to higher education, but 25 per cent felt they should have done a different course, according to Craig Thomson, principal of Adam Smith College in Fife.
Next week: graduate contributions to university costs.