SCOTTISH universities have been urged to save money and slash student debt by cutting the length of degree courses.

The controversial call from a senior college figure follows a row over whether Scotland should consider introducing tuition fees for students.

Last week, Professor Craig Mahoney, principal of the University of the West of Scotland (UWS), said charging students for higher education would provide much-needed income.

However, Dr Michael Foxley, further education regional chair for the Highlands and Islands, suggested in a letter to The Herald that universities would be better off looking at alternatives of their own.

He said: "The universities need to review urgently their current programmes of two semesters per annum as part of a... degree. This usually amounts to some 10-12 hours of lectures over 18 weeks in a year.

"This could easily be fitted into a course of two years, or even better, 18 months plus work experience. This would significantly reduce the burden of both student and parental loans as well as the cost to the Scottish Government and thereby the public."

Mr Foxley adds that the current arrangements are better suited to academics and researchers.

Last week, Mr Mahoney suggested the issue of tuition fees should be opened up for discussion because the income generated could provide more funding to improve facilities and provide more student support.

"I believe this is a conversation we have to have. I believe there is an appetite to discuss this, but the concern is, if you are seen to be affronting current government policy, that may cause problems," he said.

The comments were attacked by students and lecturers, who back the Scottish Government's stance on free tuition for Scottish students.

A spokesman for UCU Scotland, which represents university lecturers, said: "The arguments against introducing fees stand on their own."

Gordon Maloney, president of student body NUS Scotland, added: "There's a broad consensus that free education is the right thing for Scotland. This isn't just government, it's a widely supported policy right across the Scottish Parliament and society."

The call for a reform of the four-year Scottish degree comes at a time of significant pressure on public finances which has already led to a number of alternatives being devised despite it being seen as the "gold standard" of Scottish higher education.

Last year, the University of the Highlands and Islands became the fourth institution in recent years to unveil a new "fast track" degree which aims to help students enter the workplace more quickly and reduce the costs of higher education.

Dundee University, Abertay University, in Dundee, and Queen Margaret University, in Edinburgh, have already launched three year degrees which run in tandem with the longer qualification.

However, despite these developments the university sector still sees the four year degree as critical to the quality of higher education.

Universities argue the four-year degree structure is flexible allowing for different entry and exit points to suit students who don't want to or need to study at university for a full four years.