Competition for university status

March 10, 2000

A shake-out has begun in higher education colleges, with institutions racing to find their place in the rapidly changing higher education market.

College heads are weighing up opportunities and threats in tough new rules on degree-awarding powers, the imminent introduction of foundation degrees, and a growing trend towards strategic partnerships.

At least half of the 40-member institutions in the Standing Conference of Principals have decided to bid for degree-awarding powers, undeterred by stringent qualifying tests put in place by the Quality Assurance Agency.

Scop said this week that it expected a significant number of these also to try for research degree-awarding powers.

Patricia Ambrose, Scop chief executive, said there has been a "great surge of interest" in degree-awarding powers with the publication of long-awaited criteria by the QAA.

"Many had been held back by the hiatus that existed while the new criteria were being developed," she said.

Some Scop colleges are aiming as high as university status. The latest to announce its intentions is Southampton Institute, which has yet to gain degree-awarding powers despite having the largest full-time student numbers in the country for a higher education college.

Roger Brown, the institute's principal and deputy chairman of Scop, said: "At the moment the government has set its face against creating any more universities, but that could easily change. We are already large and diverse enough to argue that we could become a university overnight if we had degree awarding powers."

Other colleges are likely to be satisfied with university college status. Many will gain the title through federal alliances with universities.

But some, hoping to use the university college title, remain frustrated by government-imposed barriers. Warrington Collegiate Institute, which had been given special permission by education secretary David Blunkett to use the title while seeking an alliance with Manchester University, has been forced to shelve its ambitions.

The institute is now considering splitting its higher education and further education operations so that the higher education side can seek a partnership with Manchester University.

Principal Hilary Tucker said: "We were disappointed that we couldn't keep the title while we negotiated our new position."

Meanwhile Liverpool Hope College has pledged to take its fight for the university college title to the European Court if necessary. It is appealing to the High Court against a ruling last year barring it from using the name.

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