Colleges and institutes are lining up to become university colleges. Tony Tysome reports
Higher education's most wannabe sector breathed a sigh of relief last week as the government gave its members more time to get upwardly mobile.
In a letter to the Standing Conference of Principals, representing 47 colleges and institutes, Tony Clark, the Department for Education and Employment's higher education director, said a ban on "unauthorised titles" would be brought in "after a reasonable interval".
He was referring to the use of the word "university" in the titles of institutions, including a growing tendency by both further and higher education colleges to market themselves as a "university college".
New rules governing titles were introduced last Monday as amendments to the Teaching and Higher Education Bill. They will mean that only institutions with their own taught-degree awarding powers or those that are part of a university will be able to call themselves a university college.
SCOP members expect a rush of applications for degree-awarding powers from colleges using the university college title that do not meet the new criteria.
In fact, despite the "reasonable interval" they have been given to make the grade, the higher education college "sector" as a whole is preparing for a major shake-up as a result of the rule changes.
Most principals expect the SCOP institutions, already a highly disparate band with more than 140,000 students between them, to split into three groups. The first of these will probably move from SCOP to Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals membership, gaining university status. Three institutions, Bolton Institute, Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education, and Roehampton Institute, have already cleared the first hurdles. They have enough students, a broad enough range of subjects, and they have gained both taught degree-awarding powers and research-degree awarding powers. Only one other college, Queen Margaret College in Edinburgh, has research-degree awarding powers. But Queen Margaret is not yet big enough to qualify.
The next layer will be those institutions that succeed in the stampede for the university college title. Fourteen colleges already qualify under the new rules by having taught-degree awarding powers. Some of these, such as Nene University College Northampton, may manage to manoeuvre themselves into a position to upgrade to a university. The government's new regulations give the Privy Council wider powers to make decisions on individual cases such as these.
But many more that do not will be put in bids to the Quality Assurance Agency for the all-important taught degree-awarding powers. A watershed has been declared by Kim Howells, the lifelong learning minister, on the rules that will apply to these bids. Institutions that had already applied for the powers before the government issued its response to the Dearing inquiry will be considered under the present rules. But the rest will have what is expected to be a tougher set of tests to pass, being subject to new regulations still being developed by the QAA.
The third group will be a mixture of colleges that are content to retain their present status and others that failed to be approved as a university college. According to John Cater, principal of Edge Hill University College, institutions in this category - which Edge Hill is not - "may start to ask themselves more difficult questions about their future and the extent to which they should pursue mergers, that will be take-overs, or federal arrangements".
Norman Taylor, SCOP chairman and principal of Surrey Institute of Art and Design, believes that the rule changes will make it inevitable that more colleges will seek closer relationships with universities. The nature of arrangements made between colleges and universities will "depend on how the DFEE views institutional relationships", he said. Most colleges have just one validating institution. But the government has already made it clear that colleges that are associated with or affiliated to universities will not qualify for the university college title unless they have their own degree-awarding powers.
Nevertheless, Professor Taylor thinks there could be some room for manoeuvre, particularly with the Privy Council having a greater say in granting titles. "If you look at the way the QAA is going there is going to be a lot more focus on the validating institution. When you get academic quality tested in the validating institution, autonomy will not be quite what it was for an associated college anyway," he said.
Some college heads fear that the changes may bring about a new identity crisis in a sector that, according to some, exists for all the wrong reasons. David Warner, principal of Swansea Institute of Higher Education, said: "The problem with the higher education colleges is that they are not homogeneous as a group. We are all together in a sense for a negative reason, namely that we are not universities. The objective of most members of SCOP is to leave SCOP and join the CVCP."
Roger Brown, principal of Southampton Institute, said he is determined not to join the race for university college or university status for the sake of it. But he is concerned that some institutions may do so for fear of being left in a vulnerable position, when they should be concentrating on more clearly defining what they do best.
"Some of the institutions may be vulnerable, but the real vulnerability lies in not having a clear market position. Colleges need to be better than or different from their neighbours," he said.
Janet Trotter, principal of Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education, said that rather than trying to ape universities, colleges would do better to create for themselves an agenda built around teaching excellence and developing wider participation - themes that fit in well with the government's lifelong learning plans, and could attract more funding.
"The art over the next few years has got to be looking very closely at local markets and seeing if colleges can establish themselves as part of the access and widening participation agenda," she said.
But Bob Oxtoby, principal of Bolton, is less optimistic about the ability of the colleges to cast themselves as a group of institutions with distinctive attributes that fit in with government thinking better than universities.
"Searching for a distinctive set of characteristics among higher education colleges is an impossible task. They are such a varied lot that you cannot generalise about them. I do not think the introduction of the university college title as a new category of institution will make any difference," he said.
Professor Warner said colleges that were not specialist institutions and did not yet have degree-awarding powers were facing a future made more uncertain by the fact that the QAA's review of awarding powers was still in progress.
"We are now playing a game where no one knows the new rules, where the referee - the QAA - is under pressure from the premier league old universities, and no one knows how it will make its decisions," he said.
Dr Cater sees another potential threat - competition from a growing number of further education colleges, which are signing exclusive partnership agreements with universities that could put them in a position to encroach on higher education college business.
"Such arrangements appear to be collaborative but in practice are designed to create a competitive advantage for the universities and FE colleges. How this beds down will prove quite significant in the way the agenda for higher education colleges is taken forward," he said.
CONTENDERS FOR A UNIVERSITY TITLE
Student numbers: 8,200
Subjects: art and design, biology, environmental studies, education, health and social studies, psychology, humanities, mathematics and computing, business and management, civil engineering, construction, electronic engineering, mechanical and auto engineering, textiles.
Finance: Annual turnover Pounds 25.6 million. Operating surplus Pounds 350,000.
Bolton's bid for university status hit the headlines this year when the Quality Assurance Agency's board decided to overturn recommendations from its degree-awarding powers committee that Bolton had made the grade.
QAA chief executive John Randall personally intervened with a paper arguing that two unfavourable teaching quality assessments, one of which was made before the official three-year period on which Bolton was being judged, left too many doubts about quality.
Since then Bolton has launched a university title campaign and had favourable re-assessments in the subjects that had let it down.
It is now awaiting the secretary of state's verdict, which will be passed on to the Privy Council.
Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education
Student numbers: 7,713
Subjects: arts and design, religious studies, English and humanities, geography, planning, landscape architecture, hospitality, leisure, tourism, sport, management and information technology, education.
Finance: Turnover Pounds 32 million Operating surplus Pounds 1 million.
Cheltenham and Gloucester geared up for its university title bid after gaining research degree-awarding powers in February. It was one of a few colleges to miss the polytechnic designations deadline in 1991 and subsequent automatic award of the university title by just a few months. The college is launching a campaign to raise private funding to help pay for the development of a new campus on its Oxstalls site in Gloucester, which it left four years ago.
Student numbers: 6,700
Subjects: English, history, anthropology, biology, environmental studies, geography, zoology, modern languages, theology, dance and drama, film and TV studies, music, art in the community, sports studies, psychology, sociology, business studies and computing, health studies, geography, education.
Finance: Turnover Pounds 30.7 million. Operating surplus Pounds 100,000 Roehampton is seeking a federal relationship with the University of Surrey, rather than going for independent university status. It cleared the last of the necessary formal hurdles by gaining research degree awarding powers in March this year. A joint statement issued with Surrey this week indicated that both institutions were working towards a federal arrangement by the year 2000.