The Scottish Office has found an extra #163;15 million for higher education in addition to the #163;53 million announced at the time of the comprehensive spending review.
Helen Liddell, the Education Minister, in making the announcement to a conference held in Edinburgh by the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals, said that the extra money, available over three years, should be used to meet the Government's objectives on widening access and "in modernisation of teaching and research to support a knowledge economy".
Striking an optimistic note in the wake of the student fees controversy that dogged her predecessor, Mrs Liddell set a challenge for the new parliament to provide for 750,000 FE and HE students in Scotland by 2003. Investment in 42,000 extra places was already under way.
In a sideswipe at the "hysterical voices" in opposition parties, she pointed out that despite the imposition of the #163;1,000 tuition fee on fourth-year students from south of the border 310 more English applicants than last year registered for a place in Scottish higher education, making a total of 4,602.
The undergraduates of the future were likely to demand more flexible provision, mixing full and part-time study. "Not all future students may find a linear four-year structure as attractive as we did," Mrs Liddell said.
She welcomed the committee's recognition of the Advanced Higher in recruiting students but said: "I do not wish to force students into an inappropriate entry point to their course."
In a wide-ranging speech praised by university principals for its detail, Mrs Liddell announced a review of taught postgraduate courses, asked for a better career structure for researchers on short-term contracts and said the Open University's request for transfer of funding of its Scottish students to the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council would be considered.
David Swinfen, vice-principal of Dundee University, said that the recent Government paper on lifelong learning had been disappointing in its references to access, but Mrs Liddell claimed that universities themselves had to be more imaginative in their outreach to the community and in links with further education.
She also said that higher education would get out of the Scottish parliament only what it itself put in. The conference, whose theme was the implications of devolution, heard concerns from speakers about a possible challenge to universities' autonomy.
Lindsay Paterson, professor of educational policy at Moray House Institute of Edinburgh University, said that the younger future political leaders of Scotland had little sympathy for the universities, because they felt they were elitist and anglicised.
Chris Masters, the funding council's recently appointed chairman, said that higher education had above all to be inclusive. "Increasing access to excellence is the most important challenge," Mr Masters declared.
Joan Stringer, principal of Queen Margaret College, Edinburgh, warned against "planning blight". Higher education should not postpone its preparation for devolution just because MSPs had not yet been elected, she said. If the parliament fulfilled its aim of bringing open and responsive government, higher education had to be ready to benefit.
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