David Willetts, the universities and science minister, made the announcement in a speech at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, where he also unveiled £200 million of funding for science and engineering teaching facilities.
Using the “global race” rhetoric that is a feature of Prime Minister David Cameron’s speeches, Mr Willetts argued that UK science and engineering was key to making the nation competitive.
He argued that the UK could live up to the science challenges set by the particle physicist and TV presenter Brian Cox.
“Our aim is for Britain to be the best place in the world to do science,” Mr Willetts said. “That is the challenge Brian Cox has set, and Brian we are up for that.
“But to achieve that we must invest long term and get the next generation doing science and engineering.”
Mr Willetts added that the two announcements were designed to boost the number of women taking such subjects.
“We support the ambition of doubling the proportion of engineering degrees taken by women,” he said.
“We will extend fee loans to part-time students of engineering, technology and computer science who already have a degree in a different discipline,” Mr Willetts said.
Such a move will reverse, in that limited area, the last Labour government’s rules preventing students from accessing funding for second degrees (known as equivalent or lower qualifications, or ELQs).
“And we will invest £200 million in new teaching facilities for science and engineering in our universities,” Mr Willetts continued.
“Universities will have to match it with private money. So that makes £400 million of investment so that students can be taught on the latest equipment and ready for the world of work. That is our commitment to working with universities and businesses to help win the global race.”
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills estimates that relaxing the ELQ rule for part-time degrees in engineering, technology and computer science will lead to £5 million in extra fee loans being taken out by students in 2015-16.