Title contentions

August 15, 2013

I wonder whether it is strictly correct for BPP to claim that it is now a university (“And BPP makes two: coalition confers university title on second for-profit”, News, 8 August). The decision to allow a company to use in its title a word classified by law as “sensitive” is taken in the case of “university” by “the Registrar of Companies on behalf of the Secretary of State, not by BIS as the specified body”. Companies House merely requires confirmation from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills that it has no objection.

I corresponded with BIS about this process late in 2011. The letter I received said that “there are no formal criteria for dealing with such applications”. A Freedom of Information request yielded the missive BIS had written in the case of Coventry University College. It seems to have applied only one criterion, that “the title is clear, unambiguous and not otherwise misleading”. It accordingly wrote to Companies House that it did not object.

However, the technical consultation published by BIS in August 2011 does identify “formal criteria” and states that they are the same as those governing applications from higher education bodies that have taught degree-awarding powers. In that case, “the Privy Council Office forwards the submission to the Secretary of State for advice as the relevant Privy Councillor”, who in turn seeks advice from the Higher Education Funding Council for England “on which to assess whether the applicant meets the criteria of student numbers and good governance”.

It continues: “Organisations not eligible to apply for university title via this process can apply to Companies House to use the sensitive word ‘university’ in their title. They will first need to seek the approval of BIS, as the specified body for the sensitive word ‘university’, which applies the same criteria as above in assessing the application.”

It cannot be true both that there are “no formal criteria” and that the criteria are “the same” as those required by the Privy Council route. If there are going to be more BPP-type applications (and next time making sure that temporary degree-awarding powers have been renewed first), the consistent application of the criteria is going to be important – or it could become easy for title to be confused with substance.

G. R. Evans

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