WIDESPREAD relief has greeted the announcement of an extra Pounds 10 million for Welsh higher education next year, even though the precise distribution of the new cash is still unclear.
Peter Hain, Welsh Office minister for education, last week told the House of Commons that the extra money matched proportionately the extra Pounds 165 million allocated to the English system in late September by education and employment secretary David Blunkett.
Mr Hain said: "The new money will be used to maintain and improve quality, for urgent infrastructure needs for teaching and research and student support to promote wider access. I hope that this money, allocated despite extremely tight constraints on public spending, will be evidence that the government strongly backs Welsh universities. They are critical to our objective of building a world-beating economy in Wales."
John Andrews, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, said that although the council had not yet been given advice on the disposition and distribution of the money, "it will be very well received".
Welsh vice chancellors appealed to the Welsh Office in September when the extra money was allocated to the English system.
Derec Llwyd Morgan, University of Wales, Aberystwyth vice chancellor, said: "It is a great relief. We had feared that we might have to wait for the next public spending letter in December to find out whether we would be getting extra money."
Like the extra English cash, it has the effect of reducing the efficiency gain for 1998/99 to the 1 per cent level recommended as a maximum by the Dearing review.
Welsh universities were hit particularly hard by the 1997/98 funding round, with most suffering 3 per cent cash cuts, equivalent to a 5 per cent efficiency gain. Aberystwyth had to be safety-netted to the tune of Pounds 876,000 while Cardiff, one of the most improved performers in the 1996 research assessment exercise, was rewarded with a real-terms funding cut.
Martin Machon, assistant general secretary for the Wales and Midlands region of the Association of University Teachers, said: "We are pleased that extra funding has been promised by Mr Hain, but more money is needed to protect the institutions of higher education in Wales that are particularly vulnerable because of serious underfunding over the last 12 months."
Professor Llywd Morgan said: "It will ease pressure. We have been restructuring this year using our own reserves and we need to rebuild them. We also need to continue pressing the Welsh office for parity with English universities in terms of funding per student."
Brian Smith, vice chancellor of the University of Wales, Cardiff, said he was always cautious when headline figures were announced and wanted to see how the money would be allocated. But he added: "If it is an extra Pounds 10 million that will prevent further losses on our core funding, it will be very good news."