A LEADING academic has taken the Scottish Government to task over claims of a "centuries old tradition" of free higher education north of the Border.

John Cairns, professor of civil law at Edinburgh University, said the reverse was true, with students often paying fees directly to academics.

The intervention comes after suggestions by the SNP that its policy to keep university tuition free for Scottish students was part of a tradition dating back centuries.

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Both Michael Russell, the Education Secretary, and Alex Salmond, the First Minister, have spoken about this tradition.

However, writing in his blog on the university's website, Mr Cairns said the claim was untrue.

"Attending the class of Civil (Roman) Law at Edinburgh University in 1880 cost five guineas ... this illustrates the ignorance lying behind the First Minister's recent claim in his New Year broadcast of "Scotland's centuries-old tradition of free education" in the universities," he said.

"That university education should be free is arguably a laudable ambition, though as a policy it raises interesting questions about how to pay for such expensive institutions as the British universities. But the point of interest here is that, quite simply, there is no centuries-old tradition of free university education in Scotland. This is an indisputable matter of fact."

Mr Cairns said the "myth" had now become a "popular historical fiction" which was being used to add historical legitimacy to the Government's policy on fees.

"Popular historical debate is not always characterised by accuracy of reliance on primary source material, but may often be the product of political prejudice or half-remembered garbled information from primary or secondary school," he added.

Mr Cairns said Scottish universities had traditionally charged fees for matriculating, and individual professors also received payment.

At Edinburgh in the 1850s fees varied from three to four guineas for each course in arts, four guineas for each course in law and medicine and two guineas for each course in divinity.

The charge for graduation in medicine was £25, in divinity £10 and, while it was only £3 to graduate in arts, annual matriculation was £1.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "The First Minister was referring to the fact that we have a tradition of free education in Scotland.

"This stems from the state assuming responsibility for universal education in the late 19th century.

"We have abolished tuition fees to ensure that access to university is based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay.

"We now have a record number of people studying higher education."