Glasgow University may set up a college in the south-west of Scotland that could evolve into a university in its own right.
A Dumfries pressure group, the Crichton University of Southern Scotland Action Group, has been lobbying for a higher education institution on the site of a former psychiatric hospital, ironically established in 1834 only after the Lord Chancellor vetoed the preferred plan for a university.
Glasgow would not have to provide capital funding for the site. The vacant buildings will be refurbished by a development company which will run the site in partnership with Dumfries and Galloway Council. Support is also expected from the local enterprise company.
Glasgow principal Sir Graeme Davies said the initiative strengthened long-standing links with the area and was a response to local aspirations. "Many of our students come from Dumfries and Galloway and we have provided the region with extramural continuing education for many years," he said.
"If there is a steady expansion to a stage where the institution is viable in its own right, we're quite comfortable with that. It's not about ownership, it's about enablement."
The last Scottish university college to emerge as an independent institution was Queen's College, part of St Andrews University, which became Dundee University in 1967.
Crichton College aims to admit its first full and part-time arts and science undergraduates in October 1998. The university is beginning talks with the Scottish Office and Scottish Higher Education Funding Council on options for funded places, and hopes numbers will rise from around 200 to 600 after three or four years.
But SHEFC and the Scottish Office Education and Industry Department are so far responding cautiously. A SHEFC spokeswoman said chief executive John Sizer would meet Sir Graeme to discuss any request to redeploy some of Glasgow's existing funding for the project.
"We don't have any additional funds earmarked for it," she said.
An SOEID spokesman said: "We need to consider the full academic, economic and financial implications in the first instance."
Glasgow expects most of the students to take its new three-year general degrees in arts and science. They would then have the option of switching to specialist courses at Glasgow or elsewhere. Sir Graeme said there was also a local need for professional development, for example in law and medicine.
The college is only an hour away from the university, and some staff will teach on site. But a key element will be distance learning through the pioneering Metropolitan Area Network, the high-speed information superhighway which already links Scottish institutions.
"Changes in teaching and technology make this an idea that has found its time," Sir Graeme said.