The issue of free university tuition for people living in Scotland, which never seems that far from the headlines, was thrust into the spotlight again this week.

It was raised by First Minister Humza Yousaf in the wake of comments from Michael Marra at the recent Scottish Labour conference in Glasgow.

Labour MSP Mr Marra declared “we are not talking about tuition fees, but we are talking about having to find a new formula, a new way of addressing that system”.

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Pressed on what that would look like - during a fringe event organised by the University of Dundee - he said: “There’s lots of models across Europe. So there’s post hoc in terms of after the event, things that we had previously whether it be graduate taxes, whether it be endowments.”

Mr Yousaf declared this week: “The pro-Brexit Labour party has failed Scotland’s young people - worse still, senior Labour figures in Holyrood hinted last week at the introduction of back-door tuition fees in Scotland.

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“Let me be clear, the SNP will always fight to protect Scotland’s values and ensure that education will always be free in Scotland.”

From the perspective of the Scottish economy, this categorical statement from the First Minister was heartening and Mr Marra’s comments were somewhat alarming.

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There is no doubt that the issue of free university tuition for people in Scotland, for their first degree, has been something of a political hot potato since devolution.

However, all too often the broader economic implications of free university tuition, or what its abolition would mean, are lost in the political cut and thrust.

Scotland, as well as the UK as a whole and many other countries, makes much of its ambitions to drive economic growth partly on the back of a highly skilled workforce. There is always much hand-wringing over productivity.

To say that free university tuition is not sustainable is quite simply wrong. The Scottish Government does not have huge powers when it comes to the public finances, but it is clear from what we have seen already that free university tuition is most definitely a choice that can be made.

Many who do not like Scotland’s greater income tax burden for higher earners ask what people get in return for this compared with other parts of the UK - free university tuition is one very valuable extra thing.

Furthermore, if Mr Marra wants to talk about Europe, he might want to reflect on the existence of free university tuition in many other European countries. He could start by looking at the Nordic region then move south and consider the situation in the likes of the public universities of Germany and Greece.

Much was made recently of a cutting of funded university places for people in Scotland by the Scottish Government. This was a newsworthy event but what may have been lost on many people, who read only the top lines, is the context that this related to the removal of extra places that were put in place amid the coronavirus pandemic.

It would, of course, be good to see free university tuition throughout the UK.

Sadly, however, Sir Keir Starmer has abandoned the pledge he made at the time of the Labour leadership contest in 2020 to deliver free university tuition for people in England.

He is giving the impression there is no money to do this. However, free university tuition could obviously be accommodated by tweaking UK tax and spending decisions. And it would not in reality be that difficult.

It seems though that Sir Keir would rather give us something resembling a re-run of Nick Clegg’s staggering U-turn on university fees south of the Border in 2010 when the then leader of the Liberal Democrats went into coalition with the Conservatives.

People in Scotland who would like to see the nation’s economy become ever more skills-based - with greater value-added activity, increased productivity and a consequent boost to living standards - should surely support free university tuition. Then again, you get the impression that some doomsayers would quite simply rather carp, and would prefer things to be worse rather than better.

It surely makes no sense at all to limit the talent pool by making higher education readily available only to those who can afford it. Look at the huge fees south of the Border, of £9,250 a year for undergraduates.

People might argue that students should just take on colossal debt, but this would ultimately weigh on demand in the economy in future years by limiting drastically these individuals’ future spending power. More importantly, the prospect of such huge debt will be enough to put many people off a higher education route they might otherwise have pursued, meaning their potential is not realised.

Harnessing such potential is crucial to the Scottish economy and to firms in myriad sectors facing a skills and labour shortages crisis that has been exacerbated greatly by Brexit. Scotland faces a major demographic challenge in terms of the trend in its working-age population, so it needs all the skilled workers it can get. The UK as a whole also faces such a demographic challenge, although the situation in Scotland is more severe.

Given all the griping you hear about the Scottish economy, much of it politically motivated, the nation has done rather well, consistently, on the inward investment front in recent years.

A highly skilled workforce is a key attraction to overseas companies, so free university tuition will hopefully also help ensure a continuation of Scotland’s impressive track record on foreign direct investment.

And many of those people in Scotland who benefit from free university tuition and go on to build highly successful careers will stay here and make a very important contribution to the tax base. Not from some kind of graduate tax - that is indeed akin to “back-door tuition fees” - but through normal income tax.

It is high time people started looking beyond the political soundbites at the reality of the situation.

Clearly it would be a good thing if there were some levelling up by a future UK government to give people in England access to free university tuition. Sadly, that now seems unlikely.

However, levelling down is no kind of answer for Scotland when it comes to university tuition.