Scotland's universities must be "vigorous and forceful in telling politicians what to do" during funding talks and must push for "modest" graduate contributions, according to the leader of the nation's higher education body.
Bernard King, convener of Universities Scotland and principal of the University of Abertay, spoke to Times Higher Education after the publication of the Scottish government's education Green Paper last week.
He was critical of the Westminster government's move to cut public funding for higher education and to allow universities in England to charge tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year.
"Everybody north of the border looks south of the border and says: 'How do we avoid what's happening down there?'," Professor King said.
The governing Scottish National Party sets out two main funding options for consultation in the Green Paper. Its preferred option is that the state "retains the primary responsibility" for funding.
The other option is that the state "retains the primary responsibility but requires some form of graduate contribution".
Students from England, who already pay fees when they attend Scottish universities, could be charged up to £6,500 a year as Scotland tries to stop itself becoming a cheap option for those fleeing higher fees south of the border.
But Professor King said that increasing tuition fees for English students raised potential problems. "This is a major political issue, both for the Parliament down south and also the Parliament up north," he said. "There are issues with regard to equality legislation...All of this has to be looked at."
With talk of fees "apartheid" affecting English students studying in Scotland and Wales, higher education could prove a key source of tension in the UK's devolution settlement.
Professor King was clear in his belief that Scottish universities needed extra resources fast, to plug a "huge funding gap" following budget reductions for 2011-12.
"Higher education is a publicly funded activity," he said. "But, by God, higher education and universities can be expensive."
A "modest graduate contribution should be made by those who can afford it", he said.
Universities in England will be allowed to charge higher fees from the start of the 2012-13 academic year, and the Scottish government wants its solution in place by then.
Professor King said: "What we have to have is the same degree of funding that universities south of the border are going to have with their new fee structure. It costs as much to educate students up here as it does down there."
The Scottish government is to set up a working group with Universities Scotland, which will feed into an all-party higher education summit before the end of February.
Professor King said: "I'm absolutely convinced that Universities Scotland has got to be vigorous and forceful in telling politicians what they have got to do to secure Scotland's economic future...I'm afraid if the government doesn't understand that, we have to tell them really loud and clear."