2nd division will end in own goal

November 28, 2003

Government proposals to change the rules governing the granting of degree-awarding powers and university titles, if implemented, will produce a second division of universities in England and Wales, as well several other anomalies ("University title free-for-all", THES , November 21).

It is claimed that by relaxing the requirements for an institution to be awarded the title "university" we shall create a more diverse system of higher education. Is it not diverse enough already? The government wants "institutions to play to their strengths" but, as the proposals do not apply to institutions that already have degree-awarding powers and university titles, I cannot see there will be much positive impact. There will, however, be some negative consequences.

The first and most serious anomaly is that once again Britain will be out of step with the rest of Europe, where "university" is clearly understood to mean an institution that is engaged in teaching and research. For example, the European University Association, which has a membership of nearly 700 universities from all European countries, describes a university as having full powers to award doctoral degrees. Universities UK and 76 individual UK universities are members of the EUA and presumably accept this definition.

Yes, in some continental European countries, there are institutions with titles similar to our own "university colleges". The German Fachhochschulen , for example, have adopted the title of "university of applied science", but such institutions do not award doctorates.

The second anomaly will arise if powers to award taught-course degrees are time limited and subject to review every six years. As the award of the university title depends on possessing taught-course degree-awarding powers, it must follow that the university title will also be time limited.

It is hard to imagine an institution no longer permitted to award degrees being allowed to keep the title university.

What value would my BA (Poppleton) have, if my alma mater were no longer a university? How will the existing university colleges apply for the university title? Will they be able to use their existing powers to award taught-course degrees, or will they have to reapply under the revised, tighter rules? Will their university titles, if granted, then be time limited?

Second-division universities will not be accepted by the EUA as universities. They may have their university titles removed and will have to seek validation, registration and conferment of degrees for their PhD students from a first-division university. What a mess.

The government has not made a convincing case for its proposals. Will it please define precisely the problem these changes are intended to address?

Malcolm Frazer
Tubney, Oxfordshire

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