Douglas Ross has dropped his party’s opposition to free university tuition in Scotland, saying young people cannot be “burdened any further”.
The Scottish Tory leader, appearing at a Conservative Party conference fringe event, said it was time for a policy “rethink” following the pandemic.
Backing free university tuition marks a dramatic departure from Tory orthodoxy and draws a clear dividing line between the Tories in Scotland and England.
Scottish 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 £9,250 per year, making it the most expensive place to study in Europe.
A poll ahead of the 2016 Holyrood election found voters favoured the SNP policy, giving it a rating of 8.1 out of 10. Only a pledge to raise NHS funding received a higher rating.
Mr Ross said: “This group of young people have had their education disrupted like no other.
“They’re losing out on life-defining experiences and they’re going to be entering the job market at the most difficult time.
Douglas Ross has just dropped his party's opposition to free university tuition in Scotland, he says young people cannot be "burdened any further"
Clearest dividing line yet between the Tories in Scotland and in England
— Dan O'Donoghue (@MrDanDonoghue) October 6, 2020
“We cannot burden them any further. So now is the time for the Scottish Conservatives to rethink 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.”
SNP MSP Clare Adamson said the policy change had been made out of “desperation”, she said: “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.
“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.”
Policy U-turn by Tories
The former Moray councillor said he would offer Scots “a fresh way forward” next year.
“Too often, over the last few years, Scotland has been side-tracked by division, by constitutional issues that simply aren’t the priority of most people – 2020 stands as a rebuke to that, a wake-up call.
“To go back to the old division in Scotland that we faced wouldn’t just be an opportunity lost, it would be an insult to the lessons of 2020, it would show truly that we have learned the price of everything, and the value of nothing.”
He added: “As the saying goes, every crisis is an opportunity and I believe that the pandemic marks an opportunity for Britain, an opportunity to make this next decade a decade of cooperation, a decade when we put the old divisions behind us and, as a United Kingdom of four nations, work together to overcome the challenges ahead.”