Ivisited the final resting place of the Dunfermline-born industrialist Andrew Carnegie recently.

He ended up far from home, in Sleepy Hollow cemetery about half-an-hour from New York City by train.

Although his modest headstone - a carved Celtic cross - was adorned with a small Saltire when I visited, it isn't the cemetery's most notable burial place. Particularly at this time of year, the grave of Washington Irving was a much bigger draw.

But a plaque nearby lists some of the institutions endowed by Carnegie in his lifetime ("their work continues in his name"), including the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland.

Incorporated by Royal Charter on August 21, 1902, the trust was funded by a gift of $10 million, a then massive sum that yielded more than £100,000 a year at a time when the total government assistance to all four Scottish universities was only about £50,000 per annum.

Specifically, the trust was established with a twin mission, "to improve and extend the opportunities for scientific research in the universities of Scotland", but also to enable university attendance by "the deserving and qualified youth of that country to whom the payment of fees might act as a barrier". That latter aim serves as a useful reminder that despite Alex Salmond's frequent claims Scotland invented free university education, fees (of some sort) have long been a feature of the higher education sector.

Even today, the rocks having yet to melt in the sun, it remains a pertinent function. The trust now helps students disqualified from government fee support as a result of uncompleted courses, too many false starts, etc. Indeed, the deadline for the next round of applications is December 1.

Despite all of the rhetoric, meanwhile, Scotland continues to fare badly in terms of the level of grant available to students. Eurydice, part of the European Commission, recently published a round-up showing that at just £1,750 a year Scotland now offers the lowest maximum value of student grant of any jurisdiction in Western Europe.

Actually, it's worse in Iceland, but only because (uniquely) it offers no grants at all. The story in Scotland is a matter of public record but has not yet imprinted itself on the public consciousness: a political decision was made to reduce substantially grants for living costs and move to much higher reliance on student loans.

Now this is fine for students from relatively comfortable backgrounds, where the bank of mum and dad will often step in to plug the gap, but not so much for families with more limited means. Not only does such an approach have long-term regressive effects but it is less generous than England - usually the educational bogeyman - and even Wales, which has less devolved power than Scotland. It is also out of step with most of Europe.

As the former civil servant Lucy Hunter Blackburn wrote elsewhere last week, the result is poorer Scottish students have been left millions of pounds worse off. Free tuition, she concluded, was the "perfect middle-class, feel-good policy", "superficially universal" but in fact benefited the better off while pushing the poorest students "further into debt".

Having helped implement the student graduate endowment scheme introduced back in 2011, Ms Hunter Blackburn knows a thing or two about the gap between political rhetoric and the policy reality and, interestingly, the Scottish Government doesn't dispute her calculations, simply insisting its funding package is simpler and more "sustainable" (whatever that means) than in other parts of the UK.

The truth is that "no tuition fees" has become such an article of faith for the present Scottish Government it cannot possibly change course now, although it will be interesting to see if the new First Minister - having pledged to "refresh and recharge" the party's efforts to "tackle poverty and inequality" - will initiate even a modest rethink.

It demonstrates, more widely, the power of a good political narrative: simply repeat enough times a particular policy is progressive and it will generally be regarded as being so. Thus when the outgoing Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont had the audacity to point out the free tuition fees policy had actually failed to increase the number of lower-income students attending university, she was howled down. Ms Lamont, commented the Education Secretary Mike Russell, had shown herself to be "Tory blue".

Even the eminent economist Joseph Stiglitz - speaking in Edinburgh a couple of months ago - has swallowed, hook, line and sinker, the Scottish Government's line that free tuition has created a progressive educational utopia in Scotland in bleak contrast to the regressive fee regime south of the Border. That the latter system (a graduate tax in all but name) has proved more successful at increasing social mobility is simply ignored.

Boosting social mobility ought to be the key challenge of the modern political era rather than tired old "progressive" rhetoric and the "universal" application of benefits that more often than not benefit the wrong people. The second state-of-the-nation report from the UK-wide Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission understands this; indeed it's a rare beacon of rigorous analysis.

Rigorous analysis, of course, often amounts to uncomfortable reading for incumbent governments, both central and devolved. Alan Milburn was rightly critical of not only the present UK Coalition but also the official opposition and, less ostentatiously, the Scottish Government, recommending that it review its financial support package for "the most disadvantaged undergraduate and postgraduate students, particularly in relation to recent reductions in maintenance grants".

Mr Milburn also highlighted a lack of clear and timely data in relation to university entry, particularly for those from disadvantaged groups. And without that, it is difficult to identify access issues (although they're certainly not good) and thus take appropriate action. Crucially, as the report observed, given the absence of fees "it is striking that entry to university in Scotland appears as socially polarised as it is in England".

The Scottish Government hasn't been completely inactive in this regard: coercive legislation is in place (though not active) and there has been plenty of cajoling behind the scenes. They do so because Scottish universities remain successful and relatively well-funded - this week Edinburgh University opened an office in New York City, although its chief concern is naturally fee-paying international students.

Yet in the past Edinburgh University has toyed with what Americans would call affirmative action, deliberately favouring students from disadvantaged backgrounds to predictable squeals from middle-class parents -"It isn't fair!"- while there's much more that could be done: needs-blind admission, to take another example from the US.

Trusts such as that endowed by Andrew Carnegie more than a century ago can only do so much, but even in 2014 there is much acting as a barrier to "the deserving and qualified youth" of Scotland when it comes to higher education.