JOHANN Lamont has signalled she will end free university tuition fees under a future Labour government in Scotland.
She indicated there would be a return to a graduate contribution to pay for university education if Labour is returned to power at Holyrood.
The Pollok MSP, marking her first year as Scottish Labour leader with a speech in the Mitchell Theatre, Glasgow, said there was no such thing as free education and colleges and poorer students were paying for university education for those who were better off.
Her education speech came three months after she caused controversy when she questioned the affordability of universal benefits, including free personal care, free prescriptions and free bus travel for over 60s.
Free university education, she said, was being funded at the expense of the college sector.
Ms Lamont, a former teacher in Springburn and Castlemilk, did not outline what her policy would be going into the next Scottish elections in 2016, but hinted that those who benefit from having a degree will be expected to pay more of the costs.
She said: "We also need to look at whether the current higher education funding arrangements are fair.
"While it is undoubtedly true that higher education is a public good, it also results in private gain to those who undertake it.
"Graduates not only receive higher lifetime returns, but a disproportionate number also come from more privileged backgrounds. These two points, taken together, mean a no-charge system is essentially regressive."
Asked if that meant a return to a graduate contribution, she said: "It is one of the options, the most obvious option.
"We could have what we have currently. The consequences for the college sector is not a price worth paying."
Scotland previously had a graduate endowment fee under which students had to pay a one-off charge of £2289, but the SNP abolished the charge in 2008.
Widening her speech into school education and apprenticeships, Ms Lamont said pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds were not helped under the current education system.
Ms Lamont said the school system was two tier between rich and poor and used Scottish Government statistics showing the educational attainment of pupils from poorer backgrounds.
She added: "In Glasgow, which has nearly 2400 pupils in fifth year from the poorest 20% of households, only 58 got top grades.
"In Edinburgh seven pupils from the poorest postcodes got three or more A grades. Our education system is not delivering for the poorest."
However, the Scottish Government said her plans would result in fewer people going to university.
Education Secretary Michael Russell said: "Johann Lamont has now shown her true colours and they are Tory blue. There is barely a scintilla of difference between her plan to abolish free education and the disastrous fees regime introduced by the Tories south of the border.
"Figures last week showed a drop of more than 6.3% in the number of people accepted to English universities. Scottish universities, in contrast, were up almost 2%.
"If Johann Lamont had her way more than 3300 students accepted to university this year would not have gone. That is the reality of what Labour is proposing."
stewart.paterson@ evening times.co.uk