Fears of a widening funding gap between Scottish and English universities have prompted an urgent rethink of Scottish policy.
University leaders are worried that cuts to higher education funding in England could mean substantially less money for Scottish institutions because the Barnett formula allocation for Scotland is based on the overall budget south of the border.
“Urgent action is now required. A fair graduate contribution scheme…should be introduced in Scotland as soon as possible,” Universities Scotland admits in a report released in Edinburgh today.
But the report maintains that university education in Scotland should remain free at the point of entry, and that graduate contributions should be set at a level that does not discourage participation.
Alastair Sim, the director of Universities Scotland, said the measure was necessary to sustain an internationally competitive university sector.
“We need urgently to work to build a political consensus about a fair model of graduate contribution for Scotland that can be consistent with Scottish political values,” he said.
The Scottish Nationalist Party government has only committed to oppose “upfront” tuition fees, leaving the debate over a graduate contribution open.
A Green Paper on university funding is expected in November, but Universities Scotland said legislation should be drafted immediately after the Scottish government elections in May 2011 to ensure that any change is implemented before the 2012-13 academic year.
The National Union of Students Scotland said it was willing to discuss a form of graduate contribution, but warned that students from low-income backgrounds could be put off.
Academic unions in Scotland are calling for the contribution to be paid by graduate employers who reap the benefits of the Scottish university system.
Tony Axon, a research officer at the University and College Union Scotland, said: “We must look seriously at the idea of taxing big business for the substantial benefits it gains from a plentiful supply of graduates and using that money to increase funding for student support and universities.”