MINISTERS have said they remain committed to free higher education for Scots - amidst growing concerns the imposition of tuition fees will be brought in to fill a £500m black hole.

New research found that nearly two in three university applicants living in Scotland would defer furthering their education if they were introduced.

The University and College Union, which commissioned the study amidst worries about how higher education will be paid for, said its survey shows that any move to bring back tuition fees, which have been increasingly called for in some quarters, would damage Scottish universities finances.

The poll comes at a time when the Scottish Funding Council is reviewing the future provision and sustainability of higher and further education in the light of Covid-19 as Scotland's 19 universities face £500m losses.

And it comes as experts have warned that free university tuition may have to be scrapped to plug that black hole.

Universities Scotland said funding structures had left the sector exposed.

But a Scottish Government spokesman insisted: “We remain committed to free higher education for Scots domiciled students and access to university being based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay.”

The financial position of higher education establishments could become even worse as a result of UK government plans to limit the number of fee-paying English students allowed to study in Scotland.

Last year, 26,700 students from England enrolled at Scottish higher education institutions, accounting for 10% of total enrolments. But just 9,205 Scottish students enrolled at English universities.

HeraldScotland:

A report from the respected think tank Reform Scotland in May argued all graduates at Scottish universities should pay a financial contribution when they finish their studies.

Last week a top government expert said he would back a debate on students paying university tuition fees as the sector faces £500m losses.

Financial advisor Benny Higgins, who chairs the Scottish Government’s Economic Recovery Group, said universities are facing financial crisis after a drop in international students.

And Professor Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at the University of Edinburgh and a member of the Commission on School Reform has said the only way the deficit caused by the loss of overseas students can be compensated for is by charging higher fees for UK students — as well as those from the EU who currently study for free in Scotland.

University tuition has been free for Scottish students studying in Scotland since 2008 when the SNP government abolished the graduate endowment — a £2,000 fee paid by students after graduation once their earnings hit a certain level.

European human rights legislation meant the Scottish government could not at the same time charge EU students while discrimination within the UK member state was allowed.

The UCU-commissioned survey, conducted by research firm Progressive, has found 63% said they would put off going to university in the autumn if tuition fees were brought in a quarter said it was because they would not be able to afford to go.

The UCU said the analysis showed how tuition fees would lead to a further reduction in student numbers and income for universities with students from Scotland staying away at a time when the number of international students also looks set to plummet.

UCU said as well as the financial argument, the reintroduction of fees could "undo" recent progress Scottish universities have made on encouraging students from socially and economically deprived backgrounds to consider university.

UCU Scotland official Mary Senior said: "As well as it being morally wrong to charge students for tuition, we can also now say with confidence that it makes no economic sense. Bringing back tuition fees – either upfront or after graduation – would damage Scottish universities’ finances.

"Universities across the UK are in crisis with forecasts of a catastrophic fall in the number of international students. We need to do everything we can to support universities in the coming months as they are integral to finding a vaccine for Covid-19 and in driving the economy forward nationally, and as anchor institutions in their local communities.

"As well as the Scottish and UK governments stepping in to help, the key to keeping universities going is maintaining student numbers and not deterring potential applicants. This poll highlights how charging tuition fees for students in Scotland would lead to a further reduction in the number of students, rather than provide additional income for universities."

The National Union of Students Scotland said those from the poorest backgrounds complete their courses with average debts of £23,200 over four years.

And in May, the University of Edinburgh said it could sell off facilities due to a fall in annual income of up to £150million prompted by the pandemic.

Audit Scotland's report from last year noted that the good financial standing of three of Scotland's four ancient universities - Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews - often obscured the struggles facing other institutions.

The quartet, which are less reiliant than other institutions on government funding which has been falling, have large reserves and have increased the income they receive from other sources, particularly non-EU student tuition fees.

It noted that more than half of Scotland’s universities were in deficit in 2017/18 and the position was worse for most modern and chartered universities than in 2014/15.

Universities get their income from a number of sources. They include the Scottish Funding Council, which distributes the government money to pay the fees of Scottish and EU students.

Other major sources of income include the fees paid by students from other parts of the UK, the higher fees paid by students from other parts of the world and research funding.