A LEADING economist has called for a radical shake-up of Scotland's traditional four-year university degree.

Jeremy Peat, director of the Edinburgh-based David Hume Institute, said a more intensive three-year degree would save money and get graduates into the workforce more quickly.

The proposal is controversial because Scottish universities see the four-year degree as the gold standard in higher education, giving students an unrivalled breadth of study. However, its status has come under greater scrutiny in recent years with concerns over the cost to the public purse of studying for four years.

There are also concerns pupils who study Advanced Highers in the sixth year at school are essentially treading water for the first year of a degree.

Speaking in a personal capacity, Mr Peat said future public spending constraints would mean universities had to develop more flexible honours degrees.

"It is important to stress how important educational skills are going forward in Scotland, but also how constrained we are going to be in public finances," he said.

"That means that in higher education, as in other areas, we have to think out of the box and look at ways that we can make best use of scarce resources.

"The four-year degree has served Scotland well and, in some higher education institutions, it is likely to continue to do so, but we have to look at whether there are other models that can work as well."

Mr Peat said the higher education sector had to be more productive with its use of resources by delivering the "right people" for the economy at a lower cost. "One alternative model would be to have fewer holidays and to work more intensively and that would get students out into the labour force more rapidly and it would reduce the cost of higher education," he said.

"Another possibility would be where students spend the first year or two in academia and then another couple of years in the workforce and then go back for a final year. That could produce a more rounded and prepared person."

However, Universities Scotland, which represents university principals, said the "internationally respected" four-year degree was popular with students and already offered flexibility.

"The four-year degree is still in demand from many students at home and abroad and is likely to remain so," she said.

"Many learners already use the flexible structure of the four-year degree to enter university at different points.

"Students move from college into the second or third year of university or study for accelerated degrees at some institutions."

Last year, Dundee University became the first in Scotland to develop a dedicated three-year honours degree. In 2011, James Fraser, principal of the University of the Highlands and Islands, said it was no longer reasonable to expect all students to spend four years at university. He argued the four-year university degree adds to student debt and costs the taxpayer too much.

He called for bright students to begin their university studies in the final year of school, followed by a maximum of three years at university.

The Scottish Council of Economic Advisers has suggested a structure where many students studied for just two years for a broad, stand-alone qualification.

Education Secretary Michael Russell has also called for greater flexibility.