COLUMBIA - South Carolina's largest companies do not necessarily need to hire those with advanced degrees from locally based universities, state Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt said Tuesday.

Hitt appeared before a state House panel tasked with looking at a potential merger between the College of Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina.

Hitt also told the panel that companies like Boeing and BMW can attract those with advanced engineering degrees from all over the world. But he also said that smaller companies would benefit from a large research university and that the Charleston area offers a big draw for both companies and other higher education institutions.

"As far as I can tell, every university in the state has an office in Charleston," Hitt said. Companies are looking to higher education institutions to offer practical research advances to solve the problems of today, Hitt said.

"The companies want it and the universities want the relationships with the companies," Hitt said of companies looking to collaborate with state universities. "They're providing a service that companies are willing to pay for."

Hitt said he didn't want to comment directly on whether the two schools should merge but said the state needs more higher education opportunities. A merger of C of C and MUSC is one way to create a comprehensive research university in Charleston. It's being pushed by Lowcountry lawmakers as the committee takes a broad look at higher education issues across the state.

Lawmakers have consistently linked the "University of Charleston" effort with the needs of South Carolina companies and workforce development.

Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, said in an interview that Hitt's stance isn't inconsistent with the push for a comprehensive research university in the Lowcountry. Both the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce and the state recognize that there is a need for more workforce training and degree programs, he said, which would be beneficial statewide.

"In addition to workforce need, this is designed to meet educational need, too," Stavrinakis said.

The College of Charleston and MUSC also presented their budget requests to a Senate panel on Tuesday. The College of Charleston would like $3 million in state funds for a $35 million renovation of the Simons Center for the Arts, said Steve Osborne, the college's executive vice president for business affairs. The House passed a budget that awarded the school $300,000 for the project.

The college also wants state authority to begin to offer a new undergraduate engineering program and a select number of Ph.D. programs at the request of Lowcountry businesses. Those businesses have asked for a Ph.D. program in supply plan and logistics, among others, Osborne said.

MUSC interim president Mark Sothmann said the school would like $2 million in additional funds to help make up for a $30 million shortfall for the medical university's new dental school and $4 million for deferred maintenance.

The House gave no additional funds for either of those items, Sothmann said.

Sen. John Courson, R-Columbia, a key Senate leader, told college leaders that the House budget leaves no new money for senators to work with and new funds may be difficult to come by. "To try to move items .is a very difficult process," Courson said.

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.