In 2014 Alex Salmond famously pledged "the rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scottish students". It was even carved into a rock on the Heriot Watt University campus although later discreetly moved into storage.

The rocks are not melting - yet. But there are increasing doubts. Rebecca McQuillan argued in a recent column that free tuition was no longer sustainable, or maybe even desirable.

Once the case for free higher education would have been argued in terms of principles: that higher education should be treated like schools or the National Health Service, free to everyone and funded out of general taxation, another expression of civic solidarity. Sixty years ago the Robbins report, which set the tone for university expansion, argued that everyone who wanted to go on to higher education and was qualified should be free to do so, a principle more famous in its day than Alex Salmond’s pledge. We live in different times. Such principles are now filed away under "nice to have but unaffordable" (unlike tax cuts). Instead free tuition, its critics argue, has to be abandoned because it has had two perverse results.

Read more: Scottish Government failed to act on threat to free university places

First, a core part of the income of Scottish universities is subject to the budgetary priorities of the Scottish Government. Because higher education has not come too well out of the competition for constrained resources income per student is lower than in England. Second, the number of places for Scottish students is capped so deserving applicants are being squeezed out, especially when universities are also under pressure to admit more students from socially deprived backgrounds.

Both complaints are valid,  but only up to the point. In fact, the Scottish Government provides marginally more public funding per graduate than tuition fees generate for English universities - but, of course, it is spread over four years rather than three.

The reasons for having four-year degrees rather than three-year degrees as in England are no longer so strong. Scottish students do not enter higher education at a significantly earlier age. Honours degrees are now the norm, so very few students exit after three years with ordinary degrees. Highers, and especially Advanced Highers, meet the same standards as A levels in England while still providing greater breadth.

Of course, to suggest Scottish universities should cut the length of undergraduate courses, which I’m not, would inevitably provoke an angry reaction, charges of betrayal of a proud Scottish tradition (to be maintained, perhaps, until "the rocks melt"?). It would also move Scotland off the international "gold standard", because undergraduate degrees in the rest of Europe, the US and almost everywhere else all last for four years.

A more relevant objection to three-year degrees is that to expect the Scottish Government to maintain the funding for four years of undergraduate study if course lengths were cut to three, or to increase the number of funded places accordingly instead, would be a big ask. After all, it has just taken back the 1,500 extra funded places created at the time of Covid. So three-year degrees are almost certainly a non-starter.

The Herald: lex Salmond famously pledged the rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scottish studentslex Salmond famously pledged the rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scottish students (Image: PA)

The second objection to free tuition, that the cap on total numbers means some applicants lose out, relies heavily on anecdotes about applicants with good grades, usually from middle-class homes, who fail to find places at St Andrews, Edinburgh or Glasgow. There are almost never similar anecdotes about Scottish-based applicants being denied places at Napier or Glasgow Caledonian. There is more than a whiff of middle-class entitlement under threat. Those who complain also seem to forget that there are still plenty of well qualified English applicants who get rejected by Oxford, Cambridge or Manchester.

Opponents of free tuition look longingly south of the Border. Their ideal is universities funded by tuition fees paid by students with state-funded loans only repayable after graduation as happens in England. Andy MacIver last week called it a win-win in his Herald column. In fact it is closer to lose-lose-lose.

Lose - because student loans have increased public expenditure in England rather than the reverse. Originally the UK Government had hoped to hide them "off the books", like various public-private partnership deals. But the Office for National Statistics put a stop to that. Now outgoing loans, minus any in-year repayments, count as public spending. The result - a £1 billion increase.

Lose - no UK Government is going to increase the maximum £9,250 fee cap in a hurry because it would add billions more. But inflation has eroded the real value of fees by £2,000 since 2012 - a bigger percentage cut than Scottish universities have faced, however unsatisfactory their recent Budget settlement.

Read more: University places: Ministers were told funding cut posed risk to poor

Lose - because graduate debt in England, already substantially higher than in Scotland, is set to increase still more as a result of a less generous repayment regime introduced under Theresa May. The UK Government now has every incentive to boost repayments to reduce the burden on the public finances.

Throw in a fourth "lose". Although there is no student number cap in England, the effect has been not so much to expand overall numbers as to redistribute students between universities. The more traditional and better-regarded universities have grown, and newer universities, the equivalent of Napier, Glasgow Caledonian or Robert Gordon, are facing recruitment shortfalls and ballooning deficits. The talk in England is of universities being forced out of business.

In short, the fee-based funding regime in England is under growing strain. In comparison Scottish higher education, for all its straitened financial state (especially colleges), is a model of stability. The opponents of free tuition need to find another model. The rocks are not yet melting.

Sir Peter Scott was Scotland's Commissioner for Fair Access from 2016 to 2022.