Devolution paid off again for Scottish higher education this week after universities were given an extra £25 million for research, nearly three times the equivalent of England's award.
Wendy Alexander, minister for enterprise, transport and lifelong learning, is increasing the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council's £116 million research budget by £10 million in 2002-03 and in 2003-04, a real-terms increase of almost 9 per cent. There is an immediate £5 million boost to improve research facilities.
Ms Alexander raised hopes of continued funding for selected departments rated 3 in last year's research assessment exercise.
She said: "Added to the £80 million we have already made available for commercialisation, it really shows how serious we are about science and skills being the cornerstone of home-grown Scottish success in the future."
Ms Alexander, speaking at a celebratory breakfast for the 19 departments rated 5* in the RAE, stressed that distributing the money was a matter for Shefc. It will announce its allocations at the end of March. She said she was confident that Shefc would allow the new universities to "gain considerably" from the increase.
The Scottish Parliament's enterprise and lifelong learning committee recently called for protection for practical research that benefited the Scottish economy and society, and Ms Alexander said she had "heard the message loud and clear".
There is little expectation of blanket funding for 3-rated departments, but there is hope that key areas of national importance will be boosted.
David Bleiman, Scottish official of the Association of University Teachers, said: "If the Scottish Executive had just done a carbon-copy job (of England), we might have expected no more than £3 million or so.
"They have done much, much better than that, showing that devolution does make a difference and that Scotland is at last able to play to its competitive strengths."
There are still warnings of a funding gap, with Universities Scotland calculating that £30 million is needed to ensure no institution is a net loser.
Director David Caldwell said: "There are going to be difficult decisions taken about the way the money is to be distributed, but the fact such a significant extra amount is in the pot will help a great deal."
The Scottish boost was immediately seized on by English bodies, frustrated by the deal offered by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. English universities were awarded an extra £30 million for next year to reduce the level of cuts required to departments rated 5 in the RAE.
They are lobbying Westminster for an improved deal. Peter Cotgreave, director of Save British Science, said ministers in Scotland and Wales had shown they wanted to be serious about supporting research in the knowledge economy.
He said: "If England is not going to fall behind, Margaret Hodge must follow suit."
Sally Hunt, AUT assistant general secretary, said: "We regard this move as a clear marker to the Westminster administration that there is a real crisis in research funding following the RAE, and we will certainly be using the Scottish example to bring pressure to bear on the Department for Education and Skills and the Treasury in the run-up to the forthcoming spending review."
Tom Wilson, head of the universities department at lecturers' union Natfhe, said: "We are delighted to see the arguments [the unions] have been making appear to be gaining ground in Scotland. We hope that Westminster follows suit and finds the extra money needed to reward people properly."