Firm blow in title fight

January 12, 2012

On 4 January, David Willetts "invited proposals for new types of university with a focus on science and technology and on postgraduates".

This plan to allow what seem to be free-standing research institutes to call themselves universities raises with a new urgency the question of what a university is. At present, no institution can apply to call itself a university unless it can show that it has at least 4,000 full-time equivalent students. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills' "technical consultation" last year proposed reducing that requirement to 1,000, "of which at least 750 are studying for a degree". How would a new research institute fulfil even this reduced requirement without adequate funding of postgraduate studentships? And how would the postgraduates in these "new types of university" be able to get degrees? Could the institutions apply for research degree-awarding powers alone?

In addition to tough requirements about the scholarly and research environment on offer and the competences and standards of academics, the present criteria include the requirement that "the institution's staff are actively engaged with the pedagogic development of their discipline". The technical consultation proposes "no immediate changes to the criteria or process for research degree-awarding powers". But how confident can students be that staff in the "research-only" climate of the new institutions would put their hearts into providing the grounding in research methods and supervision they should be able to expect?

Of course, the institutions could get around this by registering themselves as companies and applying to Companies House to use "university" in their title. But the technical consultation says they "will first need to seek the approval of BIS, as the specified body for the sensitive word 'university'", which would assess the application according to the same criteria used for organisations with taught degree-awarding powers. Alas, a recent Freedom of Information request reveals that BIS has no such "formal criteria" to apply in the case of requests from companies.

G.R. Evans, Cambridge

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