Awarding the prestigious "university" title to teaching-only institutions would be disastrous to Britain's position in the international market, vice-chancellors and lecturers' leaders have warned, writes Phil Baty.
Universities UK said that allowing the title to be used by institutions with no power to award research degrees fails to recognise the essential nature of a university and will isolate Britain in Europe.
Government moves run contrary to Britain's commitments under the Bologna process, designed to harmonise higher education in Europe and improve global competitiveness, which clearly defines universities in terms of teaching and research, the vice-chancellors' group said.
Chief executive Baroness Warwick told The THES : "The proposals need much more careful consideration, particularly in light of the UK's commitments under the Bologna process." Last month's white paper says that the current system, which allows institutions to use the university title only if they have the powers to award teaching and research degrees, is at odds with the belief "that excellent teaching is, in itself, a core mission for a university".
The government said it would change the system so that from 2004-05, the title was awarded on the basis of taught degree-awarding powers, student numbers and the range of subjects offered.
Baroness Warwick said: "We cannot understand the assertion that the link between teaching and research is indirect. Rather, we subscribe to a definition of a university that includes research, teaching and knowledge transfer. The accepted Europe-wide definition of a university crucially includes both of these activities."
Some vice-chancellors are known to be furious that in rewarding good teaching in a few institutions that aspire to the university title, every existing university will be redefined in a way likely to diminish its prestige.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said: "We are profoundly concerned by the idea that an institution not involved in research could be called a university. This move is entirely unnecessary, as teaching-only institutions can already apply for university college status."
Geoffrey Alderman, academic dean at the American Intercontinental University, which plans to seek British degree-awarding powers, said: "This is a typical piece of UK higher education snobbery and prejudice against the teaching function of universities, which is, after all, their basic function. It also has a whiff of panic about it."