Higher education college heads reacted with anger and confusion this week to news that a further education college is to be allowed to use the university college title.
Education secretary David Blunkett has stepped in to give Warrington Collegiate Institute special dispensation to use the university college title "for a short period" pending negotiations with Manchester University.
Higher education colleges that have been forced to drop the university college title to comply with strict government rules introduced this month have demanded to know why Mr Blunkett has made Warrington a special case.
They say they are not opposed to Warrington using the title, but it has neither taught-degree awarding powers nor a federal relationship with a local university - the criteria being used to determine which institutions can call themselves university college.
In a letter to Mr Blunkett, Norman Taylor, chairman of the Standing Conference of Principals, has asked for an explanation. "You will understand, I am sure, the bafflement of members of SCOP who have removed the words university college from their titles, a process with very significant costs, both financial and reputational, particularly in circumstances where student application to their programmes is likely to take place in an uncertain context following the introduction of tuition fees," he writes.
"The DFEE has not made clear the nature of the circumstances in which similar dispensation might have been made, allowing other colleges a reprieve, while negotiations with their validating universities unfolded."
Hilary Tucker, Warrington's principal, said the special dispensation had been a surprise. She is negotiating with Manchester University vice-chancellor Martin Harris over what arrangements might be put in place to allow her institution to keep the title.
She said she believed Mr Blunkett had viewed Warrington as a special case because it had a higher education campus that might have to be separated from the FE institution if it was not given the chance to meet the title rules. As an FE institution it did not have degree-awarding powers and was not able to apply for them, but could seek a closer relationship with Manchester.
Tony Grayson, secretary of Liverpool Hope University College, which has launched a legal challenge to the rules that require it to change its name, described the Warrington reprieve as a "back-door arrangement".
He added: "We we are baffled by the decision given that this (Warrington) is an FE institution with fewer higher education students than us and without the quality track record in higher education that we have. This development indicates a department in disarray over this issue."
FE inspectors visited the college in November last year. In a report out this month they give Warrington grade 4 ratings for quality assurance and English, indicating a "less than satisfactory provision".