No fees? But no one told us
But the shock finding of a Universities Scotland study is that pupils and parents are unaware that Scotland axed upfront tuition fees in 2000, and believe they will be liable for costs of between £500 and £16,000 a year.
"What is needed is for all of us continually to look to up our game," Jim Wallace, Lifelong Learning Minister, told a conference in Glasgow on the findings this week. Mr Wallace revealed that the Scottish Executive's funding for learners review, which is looking at bringing greater coherence and fairness to the system, would include the consistency of advice which people receive.
Seona Reid, director of Glasgow School of Art, told the conference that previous research on damaging perceptions of universities had focused on England. It was essential to have Scottish research, given "notable differences" between the two systems.
But rna Bartley, Universities Scotland's social inclusion research and policy officer, revealed that only 10 per cent of underprivileged pupils knew of what is arguably the most notable difference, the absence of fees.
Many seem to have been bamboozled by the debate on top-up fees, with comments such as "I saw it on the news about them making you pay" and "You always hear on television, 'university fees'."
Scots from well-off families are five times more likely to go into higher education than those from poorer backgrounds, who continue to make up only a quarter of young full-time degree entrants.
But Ms Bartley said that just over half of the second and fourth-year pupils interviewed had not ruled out higher education, and believed it would lead to a better paid job.
Lindsay Roy, vice-president of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, acknowledged that schools could do more in confronting teacher expectations, improving careers guidance and challenging attitudes to learning at school.
But Mr Roy, head of Inverkeithing High, stressed that the emphasis should be on "more and better learning, and ways in which we should be trying to encourage all youngsters to raise their aspirations, whether or not it is university they want to go to".
He said later: "We need to go beyond good intentions in this area, which means there must be people on the ground going into communities and working with people so they develop more positive perceptions and receive reliable information."
Melanie Ward, president-elect of the National Union of Students Scotland, said it was important to get across the message that a degree was linked to a better quality of life. "Graduates are less likely to be victims of crime, to be discriminated against, to suffer from ill health, to be victims of domestic violence or to commit crime," she said.
She also urged institutions to use students more for outreach to schools, rather than academics. For young people who did not thrive at school, sending a "teacher-like" figure to give a lecture was likely only to increase perceptions that higher education was more school, she warned.
This was borne out by comments from pupils, many of whom found talks by university speakers uninspiring and irrelevant. One said: "She was just yapping on about stuff. I fell asleep."
Mr Roy supported any move to use role models to get the message across that "it's cool to succeed". But schools needed support from "a generation of parents who perhaps see themselves as educational failures".
The Universities Scotland study underlined the fact that the role models for many pupils were their parents, "with teachers and parents strongly agreeing that family support was the most important factor influencing a positive decision to go to university".