Students from other EU countries could be charged to study in Scotland, the education secretary has revealed.
Mike Russell told the Scottish Parliament that, if re-elected, the SNP government would also increase fees to students from other parts of the UK.
He said ministers were exploring an annual service charge for EU students similar to the one in Ireland.
The education secretary said he was committed to providing a free higher education to Scottish students.
During a statement to the Scottish Parliament, Mr Russell outlined a package of measures.
- A commitment from the state to close any funding gap
- Fee increase for students from the rest of the UK (raising up to £62m)
- Explore possibilities to generate additional income from EU students outwith the UK (raising about £22m).
- Efficiency savings within the university sector (£26m)
- Private sector investment and philanthropy
It is feared that Scottish universities could fall behind when English and Welsh universities begin charging up to £9,000 in annual tuition fees next year.
Mr Russell told MSPs he expected money raised from non-Scottish students, alongside philanthropy, private sector investment and efficiency savings, to help close the £93m funding gap expected to grow between universities in Scotland and England.
"The green paper process and our analysis of the joint Scottish government and Universities Scotland report allowed us to conclude that free education can and will be protected in Scotland without the need to resort to fees or a graduate contribution," he said.
EU student subsidy
Scottish students studying at home currently pay no tuition fees, while other UK students at Scottish universities pay £1,820 per year for mainstream courses.
Under EU rules, students coming to Scotland from other European countries have to be treated in the same way as Scottish students.
Mr Russell said: "I have long had concerns about the subsidy we pay for EU students.
"The numbers have almost doubled over the last decade - the cost to the Scottish taxpayer stands at £75m.
"So I also intend to explore further, within the boundaries of European law, the possibility of reducing this."
He said the SNP was considering implementing an annual charge similar to the one used in Ireland.
Irish and other EU undergraduates do not pay tuition fees to study in Ireland but most higher education colleges charge an annual student contribution to cover student services and examinations.
The maximum rate of the student contribution for 2011/2012 is 2,000 euros (£1,735).
The SNP government said it would seek to implement a similar scheme if the EU agreed to exempt Scottish students from paying the charge.
Mr Russell added: "I should make it clear that we would only support such an arrangement if we could pay the charge for all Scottish students."
However, he said his party would remain committed to providing free education for Scottish students even if the funding gap was not filled.
Liz Smith MSP, from the Scottish Conservatives, said she believed the funding gap was even larger than outlined by Mr Russell and a graduate contribution was needed.
She said: "Mike Russell is living in cloud cuckoo land if he really believes that the higher education funding gap between England and Scotland might come down to £75m.
"This is the world of fantasy arithmetic and it simply isn't going to happen."
The Scottish Labour Party's education spokesman, Des McNulty MSP, said he was pleased the minister was committed to fill the university funding gap.
"However, the entire higher and further education sector is facing severe problems because of SNP cuts to teaching and capital budgets," he said.
"These cuts mean that many colleges and universities are considering making compulsory redundancies and courses are being cut."
Margaret Smith MSP, Scottish Liberal Democrats education spokesman, said: "We agree with the minister that more must be done to get more income from EU students and students from elsewhere in the UK.
"We have to make Scotland's universities the most competitive they can be."
But she said more needed to be done to make sure there was adequate support for poor and part-time students.
Liam Burns, NUS Scotland president, welcomed the parties' commitment to avoiding tuition fees but said a service charge for EU students was "lazy".
He said: "It's right that we look at how governments from across Europe pay their fair share for educating students from their countries, but to jump to a crude service charge would be lazy.
"We are very dubious that such a system would work in Scotland, comply with EU legislation and that's even before we look at whether this is fair or not."