Title fights don't need weight restrictions

July 21, 2011

As principal and chief executive of a higher education institution that prides itself on the individually focused, formative education it offers its students, I welcome the government's moves, as outlined in the White Paper, to place the needs of students more overtly at the heart of the sector.

During the parliamentary debate that followed the White Paper's unveiling, Gisela Stuart, the Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston, posed a question regarding the potential for smaller institutions to become full universities without requiring 4,000-plus students. This was particularly interesting from our perspective.

As a smaller higher education institution, Newman University College obtained its current status in 2007. While we are proud of the university college title, we frequently encounter confusion outside the sector as to what it actually means.

University colleges operate in the same way as universities and confer their own degrees, which are comparable in quality to those from full institutions. However, they are currently prevented from using the universally understood term "university" solely because of their size.

This creates a perception challenge, meaning that smaller institutions have to spend additional time and resources educating students and employers about their titles.

They also find it more difficult to develop valuable international links due to their lack of university status.

Not only is the current state of affairs confusing for the public, it is also something of an anachronism given that many existing universities operate collegiate systems. These structures are widely praised for allowing students to benefit from greater one-to-one tuition and support to develop their own aptitude and understanding. So why should new institutions in effect be penalised for following a similar model?

Under current regulations, university colleges need to increase their student numbers to more than 4,000 before they can be considered for full university status. But with government-imposed caps on student numbers and substantial fines for exceeding those quotas, achieving such growth has been almost impossible, despite strong demand from applicants.

The response of David Willetts, the universities and science minister, to Stuart's question - in which he said he hoped that the White Paper would allow "institutions that have a clear focus on higher education to take the title 'university' when they were previously prevented from doing so because they had fewer than 4,000 students" - is to be welcomed. Importantly, changing this arbitrary definition would be cost neutral to the taxpayer.

And with further education colleges and private universities expected to enter the market over the next few years, ensuring clarity over the different kinds of provider has never been so important.

Lifting arbitrary restrictions on the university title would play a major role in clearing up any confusion, enabling students and employers to make informed choices while allowing smaller institutions to continue providing the student-focused, formative experience that has made their graduates so successful in the competitive employment market.

Peter Lutzeier, Principal and chief executive, Newman University College, Birmingham

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