LEADING universities would not be starved of research cash in an independent Scotland, Michael Russell has insisted.

In a bid to reassure academics, the Education Secretary claimed ­independence would not "raise barriers" to ­international co-operation on major research projects.

He told the SNP ­conference: "We already fund a considerable amount of research.

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"We work within a number of shared research areas in Scotland, these islands, Europe, the world.

"With a Yes vote next year we will continue to do so. Quality, not location, counts."

He added: "We will bring forward proposals over the next few weeks and months to answer ­questions on research and funding."

He was responding to fears that Scotland's top universities would slide down global league tables if they no longer had access to UK-wide research funding.

Professor Chris ­Hawkesworth, vice-principal of the University of St Andrews, told a conference in Aberdeen last week independence was "likely significantly to disadvantage researchers in Scotland".

Another academic, Rick Rylance, chairman of Research Councils UK, said "separation would adversely impact this overall performance".

Their comments were seized on by the pro-UK Better Together campaign, which claimed Scotland's record of having three universities in the world's top 100 was at risk.

Mr Russell also used his conference speech to announce further support for Scottish students.

From 2015, up to 5000 post-graduate students on "eligible courses" will be able to apply for loans of up to £4500 to help with living costs.

Undergraduate student loans will also rise by £250, taking the minimum income for students from the poorest backgrounds to £7500.

Mr Russell said: "We want students in Scotland to be able to study for the ­qualification that suits their ability and ambition.

"These changes will help make that a reality and improve the life chances and employability of young Scots delivering real benefits to the Scottish economy in future."