ALMOST two-thirds of Scots believe that students studying in Scotland should have to pay for their university education, an exclusive Scotsman poll reveals today.
The vast majority of the Scottish public took issue with plans by the SNP, Labour and Liberal Democrats to keep providing free higher education north of the Border at taxpayers' expense.
A YouGov poll of 1,135 Scottish adults revealed that 65 per cent supported the idea that students should make a graduate contribution towards the cost of their studies once they start earning. The findings come a day after it emerged that two-thirds of English universities intend to charge the maximum of 9,000 a year, prompting some experts to warn of a funding gap of more than 300 million opening up between Scotland and England.
Free higher education has become one of the most contentious subjects of the Scottish election campaign, with university principals questioning the figures on which the SNP, Labour and Lib Dems have based their calculations.
The Conservatives are the only main party to advocate a graduate contribution, whereby students pay for their education after they have left university - a policy that has drawn a clear dividing line between Annabel Goldie's party and its rivals. When asked whether students should pay a contribution of up to 4,000 for their university education, 65 per cent of the sample said they would support such a move.
The poll even showed that 66 per cent of SNP voters favoured that policy over Alex Salmond's promise of free higher education.
More than 70 per cent of Lib Dem voters thought that graduates should make a 4,000 contribution to their university education, while around 56 per cent of Labour voters took the same view. Further indications that public opinion is moving against the notion of free university education came when Scots were asked about the English funding model.
More Scots supported than opposed the English approach of asking students to pay back the tuition fees using student loans when they were earning more than 21,000.
Some 44 per cent supported the English model, compared with 41 per cent who opposed it.
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The extra revenue that English institutions will accrue from tuition fees has led to fears that Scottish universities will fall behind their counterparts elsewhere in the UK.
Only 33 per cent of Scots thought that this deficit ought to be made up through increased government spending, while 37 per cent thought that the shortfall should be made up by students themselves.
The remainder either did not know where the cash should come from, or believed that neither the public purse nor students should provide the extra cash.
The Conservatives claimed that the results of the poll supported their approach of graduates making a contribution of up to 4,000 per year.
Campaign manager David McLetchie said: "This is more evidence that Scots are fair-minded and accept it is fair for graduates to make a contribution towards the cost of their education.
"Despite all the evidence, Labour, Lib Dems and the SNP refuse to find the money needed to bridge the real funding gap. Scottish Conservative proposals for a graduate contribution, paid from future earning, at an affordable rate, will mean that Scotland's universities can retain their excellence, retain their student numbers, and we can also boost bursary support for students from poorer backgrounds by 55m a year."Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, said the poll results backed up his organisation's call for a modest graduate contribution, at a level below that charged in England.
He said: "Today's poll shows there is clear public support for graduates to make a contribution towards their education.
"Universities Scotland has been calling for a modest contribution since last summer as a realistic solution to the funding problem, given the pressures on Scotland's public finances."
The SNP has said it can fund free Scottish higher education on the basis that the cross-border funding gap would be 93m to be met by the public purse. That figure, however, has been described as unrealistic by university principals, because it was based on English universities charging 6,000 per year. But with the passing of the deadline for fees submissions for the 2012 academic year, it has been revealed that 46 out of 70 English universities have said they would charge the maximum 9,000 per year.
Some experts have estimated the funding gap could exceed 300m.
Last night, the SNP, Labour and the Lib Dems all pledged to plough ahead with their plans for free education.
Michael Russell, education secretary and SNP candidate for Argyll and Bute, said: "The SNP believes anyone with the ability to go to university - no matter what their background - should be able to go. Access to university should be based on ability to learn, not ability to pay.
"Crippling students and graduates with fees not only puts people off higher education, it leaves them starting their working lives with ridiculous debts hanging over their heads."
Scottish Labour's candidate for Eastwood, Ken Macintosh, said: "This poll shows that opinion is split on higher education funding. Bringing in a graduate contribution now would not resolve the present financial difficulties in higher education, which are the responsibility of the current SNP government."
Lib Dem education spokeswoman Margaret Smith said: "We believe university education should be provided to all on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay. We are proud of our role abolishing fees in Scotland and will not reintroduce them."The National Union of Students maintained their opposition to fees or a graduate contribution. Liam Burns, president of NUS Scotland, said: "Scotland has made the right choice to rule out fees and take a different route to that seen in the rest of the UK.
"We should now move on from the sideshow of fees and look at the ways we can improve our universities and colleges over the coming years."
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