Student leaders have welcomed a pledge from Labour leader Jim Murphy that his party would maintain free university education north of the border.

The Scottish Labour leader insisted that if he becomes first minister after the 2016 Holyrood election, there will be "no university tuition fees in Scotland".

He added: "I want young Scots to be able to train to be doctors, teachers, lawyers, engineers, scientists and much more no matter their background or how much money their parents have."

The National Union of Students (NUS) said the policy announcement shows there is now "a broad consensus against fees for Scottish students, and against charging in Scottish higher education".

NUS Scotland president Gordon Maloney added: "Scottish Labour should be congratulated for standing up against fees. Free education was the right choice to make when the Scottish Government abolished all fees in 2008, the right choice in the 2011 election when over 85% of MSPs committed to rule out fees, and the right choice now as we look ahead to the 2016 elections.

"The frustration in recent years has been that the debate on tuition fees has dominated to the exclusion of almost anything else on education. Now the debate is settled we need to shift the focus to other equally important issues such as tackling student poverty, improving fair access to education, and properly funding our college students."

Mr Murphy said free tuition is only part of the plan to help give all youngsters the best start in life, highlighting Labour proposals for a £125 million fund to close the attainment gap.

He said: "The fact that just 220 of the poorest kids in Scotland get the grades they need to study at our best universities is a moral scandal.

"There is sometimes a certain conceit in Scotland about our education system. As a society we pat ourselves on the back for keeping university tuition free when for too many working class Scots even the idea of going to university is just a pipe dream. That's not good enough.

"Scottish Labour has set out an ambitious £125 million programme to give working class kids the best start in life. We will use this money to support the children who are being left behind by the SNP Government in Edinburgh."

But First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Mr Murphy, the MP for East Renfrewshire, had been an "avid supporter" of tuition fees at Westminster, as she suggested his stance could be a "desperate, tactical manoeuvre to try to rescue the fortunes of his party".

Ms Sturgeon said: "I welcome any convert to the cause of free university education, I feel passionately about this subject having benefited from free university education as I was growing up, I've got no right to take that away from any young person growing up today or in years to come."

She added: "I think there is a degree of a credibility issue around Mr Murphy's comments today, he has consistently voted for tuition fees throughout his political career, so I think people will be sceptical about this sudden change of heart and may judge that it is more a desperate, tactical manoeuvre to try to rescue the fortunes of his party than any commitment to free education.

"You should always judge people on what they do, not just on what they say, and if you judge Mr Murphy on what he's done over the years you will see someone who has been an avid supporter of tuition fees."