College principals are worried that the future role of their institutions may be "set in aspic" after Sir Ron Dearing's review of the sector.
Their umbrella body, the Standing Conference of Principals, is to urge Sir Ron to propose a system flexible enough to allow colleges to find their own place in the system.
SCOP, which held its annual conference in Cambridge this week, has drafted a submission to Sir Ron's inquiry stressing the importance of diversity. It says this does not conflict with colleges' bid to call themselves university colleges. They have proposed that colleges that award their own or university-validated degrees should be allowed to use the title.
But Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, has told them they must wait for Sir Ron's verdict.
Tim Cox, SCOP executive secretary, said there was a concern that Sir Ron would produce a "grand plan" for higher education which would pigeonhole colleges without taking account of the broad range of courses run by SCOP's 55 member institutions. "If there is a grand plan, we want it to be flexible enough to allow all institutions to decide for themselves which way they want to go," he said.
Martin Gaskell, director of Nene College and SCOP chairman, said: "We want to urge Sir Ron not to set the sector in aspic as of a certain date. If we had done that in the past, many of our top universities may not have risen to their present position."
SCOP is hoping to get agreement with the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals on how to present the case for university college titles to Sir Ron. The CVCP opposed earlier SCOP proposals.