The Scottish people do not overwhelmingly believe in the principle of free higher education, a leading education expert has revealed. The Scottish Liberal Democrat, Conservative and National parties have steadfastly insisted that tuition fees must be abolished because of the electoral mandate in the Scottish parliamentary elections for a free system.
But Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at Edinburgh University, said the rhetoric of a mandate "is no more than a convenience for politicians".
He says it is impossible to judge whether voters for the governing parties were aware of any particular commitment when casting their vote, or to judge what weight they gave to each commitment.
Professor Paterson produced a report for the Cubie inquiry that showed the Scottish population is split down the middle on the question of whether all students should have their fees paid.
His paper is to be published by the Cubie committee later this month. Graduates show a clear majority in favour of free higher education, while most of those with few or no educational qualifications want fees paid for only some students.
"Poorer people are less in favour of free higher education than richer people," said Professor Paterson.
Scottish views do not differ dramatically from those in Britain as a whole: 45 per cent of Scots favour free education, compared with the British figure of 39 per cent.
But Professor Paterson has found that there is a much clearer consensus about grants and loans. Nearly two-thirds of Scots oppose students having to take out loans, and favour a system of means-tested grants.
"Any claim that there is a mandate to reform student finance in Scotland is almost equally a claim that there is a mandate for the same reform in England and Wales," said Professor Paterson.