A LEADING think tank has called for an end to free university tuition for Scots – amid a warning the current structure is leading to a “grossly unfair cap” on the number of Scottish students.

SNP ministers have been accused of overseeing “years of underfunding for higher education”, with worries raised by opposition parties the responsibility should not be shifted onto students.

University tuition has been free for Scottish students studying in Scotland since 2008 when Alex Salmond’s government abolished the graduate endowment.

But Mr Salmond, who now leads the Alba party, has told The Herald that any party attempting to “roll back” his landmark policy “will reap an electoral whirlwind”.

In a new briefing paper on university education, the Reform Scotland think tank has called for Scottish graduates to pay back a proportion of their university fees when they earn enough money to do so.

As it stands, the Scottish Government sets the amount of funding it will provide to Scottish universities each year in order to cover free tuition for domicile students in Scotland.

However, the briefing, Scrap The Cap, argues that this has led to an 84 per cent increase in the number of Scottish-domiciled applicants being refused entry to universities in Scotland since 2006.

Reform Scotland proposes a system requiring repayment of tuition fees by those who can afford to do so, while anyone with little financial benefit as a result of attending university will repay “little or nothing”.

The think tank has also suggested that the Scottish Government could look to introduce schemes to cut or scrap repayments for graduates who remain in Scotland in order to work in certain sectors for set periods of time.

Reform Scotland’s research director and co-author of Scrap the Cap, Alison Payne, said: “While society as a whole benefits from having a well-educated workforce, the individual graduates themselves also benefit from the higher earnings they accrue.

“However, at present in Scotland, only wider society pays through the tax system for graduates who are originally from Scotland.

“The funding arrangement may seem like it benefits Scots as there are no direct fees to pay to attend university, but it has also created an artificial cap on the number of Scottish students that can study in Scotland.

“Our young people’s ambition is being stifled by how we fund higher education.”

Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy in the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh, and member of Reform Scotland’s Commission on School Reform, added: “We need to scrap this unfair cap.

“To do that, graduates should contribute towards the cost of their higher education by means of a deferred fee, to be repaid once they earn more than the Scottish average salary.

“The proceeds from the repaid fees would free up money to provide bursaries for entrants to university from low-income families.

“Such a system would ensure a ‘no win, no fee’ university education.

“This change is not only inevitable, it is also right.”

Oliver Mundell, Scottish Conservative shadow education secretary, said the blame rested with ministers for having “created a grossly unfair cap on Scots entering university”.

He added: "But that was caused by years of underfunding for higher education from the Scottish Government — not from students.

"Financial position shouldn't determine whether anyone can attend university.

"Look at the disruption young people faced during the pandemic, and the challenging financial circumstances faced by graduates entering the workplace.

"They'd be best served by making free tuition actually work for everyone, like it is meant to."

Mr Salmond has insisted that during the cost-of-living crisis, which he blamed on the UK Government, “the very last thing Scotland needs is this homegrown right-wing dogma from Reform Scotland”.

He added: “To propose reintroducing student fees in an environment of soaring interest rates reflects the folly of people personally insulated from the economic pressures impacting on working families.

“Thanks to free education introduced when I was First Minister young people in Scotland gain educational opportunity on their ability to learn not their ability to pay while their peers south of the border have the intimidation of annual tuition fees of over £9000. They then start working life with crippling debts which is bad for the economy and society.

“As a result of free education Scotland has one of the highest higher education and university participation rates in the whole of Europe. If we want to raise it further then we should increase education investment and scrap any suggested cap on numbers. The last thing to do is to make Scottish youngsters pay through the nose for their right to learn.

“One thing I can say with certainty. Any political party which attempts to roll back the social contract the Government I led established on free education and a health service free at the point of need will reap an electoral whirlwind.

"The rocks will melt with the sun before Scots would permit such regressive moves backwards.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government remains committed to free higher education for Scotland-domiciled students and access to university being based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay.

“Our continued commitment to free tuition ensures that eligible Scottish domiciled students studying in Scotland do not incur up to £27,750 of additional student loan debt and produces the lowest student debt levels in the UK.”