THE Tories’ decision to back a long-standing SNP policy of free university education in Scotland as “the least convincing U-turn in modern political history”.

Douglas Ross and Ruth Davidson’s announcement comes as political parties prepare their manifestos for the May poll – and after senior Conservatives had expressed concerns their policy for a £6000 graduation tax on students was a voter loser.

“After years of trying to force tuition fees on Scottish students, Douglas Ross and Baroness Davidson claim to have seen the light. This has to be the least convincing U-turn in modern political history,” said Clare Adamson, the SNP MSP. They have never backed free education and always defended privilege for the few, over education for the many.

“Now, facing a disastrous showing at the election, the Tory leopard is claiming to have changed its spots. No-one will believe a word of it.

“Scotland knows exactly who Baroness Davidson and her band of Boris apologists are. They have seen them in action for years. Desperate claims of sudden repentance will convince no-one.

“Scratch beneath the surface and the Scottish Tories are still the right-wing nasty party we all know them as. Only the SNP can protect Scotland’s proud tradition of free higher education.”

Ross announced the U-turn this afternoon at an event hosted by Young Conservatives at the party’s conference.

“This group of young people have had their education disrupted like no other,” he said. “They’re losing out on life-defining experiences and they’re going to be entering the job market at the most difficult time.

“We cannot burden them any further. So now is the time for the Scottish Conservatives to re-think our policy on introducing tuition fees and a graduate contribution.

“Our manifesto will support free tuition for university students, while calling for college places to be viewed as equally valuable.”

Last year a review of the Tory position was announced in work being carried out by Conservative MSP Donald Cameron to prepare the party’s manifesto for 2021.

“There are a number of us in the party that believe the policy should change as things stand,” a party source told The Scotsman at the time.

But the source said changing the policy was unlikely to go ahead while Liz Smith was the party’s education spokeswoman. Smith was later replaced on the education brief by Jamie Greene.

Scots students get free university tuition north of the Border, as do students from other EU countries, but those from England, Wales and Northern Ireland have to pay. In England, the fees cost up to £9250 per year, making it the most expensive place to study in Europe.

Backing free university tuition would mark a dramatic departure from Tory orthodoxy and draw the clearest dividing line yet between the Tories in Scotland and in England.