Portuguese research and training has progressed enormously in the last 30 years, due to a large extent to support from the EU, said representatives from the Portuguese higher education system at a meeting in Brussels on 22 June. Thanks to structural funds received from the Community channelled into developing research and education infrastructures, Portuguese universities are prepared to meet the challenges of the Information Society, said Professor Julio Pedrosa, President of the Portuguese Universities Rectors Council. 'The change observed in the higher education panorama in Portugal during the last 30 years is a unique case in Europe,' he said. 'We have moved from a situation, in 1970, in which the country had four universities in three towns, to more than 150 institutions in all the territory today. 'Portuguese universities have made a fast and fantastic progress in the last years, mainly due to the contribution of the European Union and Community. This allowed us to be partners, to cooperate, to be internationally active in research, in mobility of staff and students, in contributing for the building of Europe in very diverse, distinct and engaged ways.' Professor Pedrosa said the Portuguese government made a strategic decision to devote much of the structural funds received from the EU to its education system and research. The money was spent on establishing a solid infrastructure - building laboratories, libraries, lecture theatres - buying equipment, and qualifying people. 'The government realised that without having a properly qualified population, without having the capacity to be a real partner in research, Portugal would be left behind.' Today, Portugal is an enthusiastic partner in Community research, witnessed by its involvement in the Framework Programmes, which is increasing every year. Professor Pedrosa also lent his support to the idea of a European research area, the initiative of Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin recently approved at a meeting of the Research Council. 'Our universities are prepared to contribute to consolidating a research system which can be at the core of European competitiveness,' he said. Portuguese researchers are particularly strong in the areas of health sciences and related disciplines, materials sciences, environmental and marine sciences, and increasingly information technologies, which are regarded as a strategic area. In the social sciences, sociology and education are well regarded internationally, according to Professor Pedrosa. The Secretary of State for Education, José Joaquim Reis, said the higher education system is one of the best results of a democratic Portugal. The Lisbon summit held under the Portuguese Presidency underlined the importance of keeping up with developments in research and particularly the Information Society, challenges that the universities must meet, said Mr Reis. 'Lifelong learning and the inclusion of new and different publics, certification of knowledge and skills obtained outside the university, and deeper institutionalisation - these are some of the new challenges for the universities in the near future,' he said. 'Portuguese universities are definitely prepared for the challenges of the millennium and they will do their best.'