The principal of Scotland's oldest university has claimed that £9000 a year is "very little" to pay for an education at the prestigious institution.

Professor Louise Richardson of St Andrews dismissed suggestions that because students from the rest of the UK paid for their fees, the university might feel under pressure to treat them differently, in an interview with The Herald.

Read the interview in full

She said: "I don't think it should, we're not a market. I think – I'm going to say something that is very unpopular – £9000 a year is very little to pay for a St Andrews education because it's worth a great deal more.

"I don't think because some students are paying fees we should start treating them somehow as if they are customers. That's the marketisation of education and that way I think is corrosive.

"Right now in our classrooms we have kids paying nothing, kids paying £9000 and international students paying significantly more and should we be treating those differently? I don't think so. We provide the best education we can provide."

Her comments on fees provoked criticism from student leaders. Robin Parker, president of the National Union of Students Scotland, said: "It's a bit rich, coming from the head of a university with such an abysmal record of recruiting students from the poorest backgrounds, that £9000 degrees are in fact a bargain.

"It shows just how out of touch some principals are that they believe students should be thanking them for not charging even more."

Scottish students do not pay fees, unlike students from the rest of the UK (RUK), making a four-year St Andrews undergraduate degree one of the more expensive in the country at £36,000.

The fees, however, do not appear to be putting students off. Current Ucas figures show that applications from RUK students to St Andrews seeking entry in September 2013 increased 10.7%, compared to last year.

A spokeswoman from Universities Scotland, which represents Scottish universities – including St Andrews – said: "There is no getting away from the fact that higher education is an expensive business. It costs a lot of money to attract and retain the best staff to keep Scotland at the leading edge of teaching, to innovate within the curriculum and to keep student satisfaction at the highest levels in the UK."

She said Scottish universities did not want to charge more than £9000: "How much of that cost is borne by the public purse and how much by the individual is ultimately a political decision. The decision in Scotland to cap fees at £9000 for students coming from the rest of the UK was a necessary response to decisions taken at Westminster.

"Universities in Scotland have held to that cap on a voluntary basis for the last 18 months and Universities Scotland is happy to see this enforced by legislation currently making its way through the Scottish Parliament."

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's alma mater came in for criticism last year after it was revealed the university was admitting fewer Scottish students officially deemed to be from deprived areas than any other university in Scotland.

St Andrews took 14 students in 2010/11 designated by the Scottish Government's Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation to be from the least affluent 20% of communities (SIMD 20). The students accounted for less than 3% of the student body.

Professor Richardson said: "I really feel that we need to ensure that people smart enough to get in here can afford to get in here irrespective of whatever coverage we get for it and that's certainly been a priority of mine since the day I arrived."

The university has negotiated new targets as part of an agreement with the Scottish Government. Professor Richardson said: "We will do far better, in terms of educating deprived kids, than targets for SIMD 20s suggest."

She insisted the real fault lay with failures to give youngsters from deprived backgrounds educational and social support at a young age so that they could achieve the requisite exam results to gain entry.

"The real tragedy about this is how few kids from SIMD 20 are qualified to come to universities like St Andrews. There's no point in blaming the universities – the intervention needs to take place far earlier," she said.