Identifying seven higher education colleges as candidates for university status is not quite on the scale of the polytechnics' elevation in 1992, but it was still bound to create a stir. Inevitably, there have been allegations of dumbing down and suspicions that the move is designed to muddy the waters in a wider division of the sector into teaching and research universities. Some also see the announcement as the thin end of a wedge that leads to corporate universities and the promotion of many less deserving colleges in the future.
If the argument were solely about institutional quality, it would be hard to begrudge the seven their moment of glory. They have shown that they can hold their own with many former polytechnics in comparisons of teaching and research. But, while the beneficiaries would not wish it, their promotion does hasten the arrival of teaching-only universities. With or without a new title, the seven institutions and their successors will be relegated to the bottom stream of research funding under Sir Gareth Roberts' proposals.
So are we too precious about the university title? Many of those who have been knocking at the door for the past decade would be accepted gladly as state universities in America, while in France the most prestigious institutions are not universities at all. Surely a college should not be given degree-awarding powers unless it is also worthy of university status.
The debate comes back yet again to Charles Clarke's musing on the purpose of a university. If any part of that role is to push back the boundaries of knowledge, rather than simply to pass on received wisdom, then the university title should remain jealously guarded. But if, as ministers now insist, high-quality teaching is sufficient, there is little reason to treat successful colleges as second-class institutions. It is a question for academe as much as for politicians because this apparently limited change will have wider ramifications. Companies may have difficulty meeting the criteria laid down by the Quality Assurance Agency, but the last extension of the university rubric showed that colleges can grow rapidly given sufficient incentive. Several are within reach of the minimum size laid down this week and others will no doubt merge rather than be left behind in a college sector with further reduced status. There can only be sympathy for those caught in the middle, but the conclusion must be that a university is more than a teaching centre. Some of the candidates for promotion could make a good case for university status as it has always been understood, but this week's proposal merely devalues the currency.