Mike Russell, the Scottish education secretary, is to set up an expert group to "number crunch" different models of graduate contribution after a cross-party agreement on the need for a new funding system for Scottish universities.
Politicians from all Scotland's political parties this week met with university representatives, including Universities Scotland and the University and College Union, to thrash out the future of Scottish higher education. The meeting followed the publication of a Universities Scotland paper that calls for a "graduate contribution" to secure the competitiveness of the country's universities in the wake of the Browne Review of fees and funding in England.
Fears of a widening funding gap between England and Scotland prompted an urgent rethink of Scottish policy on tuition fees. At present, Scottish students do not pay a fee.
The Scottish government said it had "not ruled out" any funding method, but Mr Russell said he did not agree with upfront tuition fees.
At a meeting on 15 November, described by participants as "constructive", it was agreed that a new funding model must be found, but also that the state must remain the primary funder of higher education.
Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, said it was "a great relief" that all parties were committed to keep public funding at the core of the Scottish sector.
"We do not want Scotland to go down the same road as England, with its wholesale transfer of financial responsibility from the state to individual graduates," he said.
However, despite a year of work on the issue, members of Universities Scotland have not been able to reach an agreement on which funding model to support.
Last week, a spokesman for the University of St Andrews said the Browne Review was "an elegant and realistic response to funding pressures", a comment that has surprised and angered other university leaders, and that is in opposition to the official Universities Scotland view.
The UCU used this week's meeting to reiterate its proposals for a business education tax as an alternative to gathering income from students and graduates.
The union has maintained its stance despite the National Union of Students in Scotland agreeing to discuss a graduate contribution for Scottish students.
Tony Axon, a researcher at the UCU, acknowledged that failure to find a common position with the NUS could cause problems in negotiations.
The expert group appointed by Mr Russell will consider a variety of funding models to support universities in future. It is expected to be a "short-life" group that will report before Christmas and feed into a Green Paper on the issue in December.
Mr Russell also committed to introducing legislation on university funding before June 2011, providing a solution to the problem ahead of the 2012-13 academic year. However, the issue is likely to remain unresolved before Scottish parliamentary elections in May.
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