Questions have been asked about the Department of Education's decision to let a venture launched by Gary Neville and Lancaster University call itself a “university academy” before it officially comes into existence.
The move potentially opens up a new title in English higher education.
For institutions to gain university or university college title, they must have secured degree-awarding powers, which at present requires at least a four-year track record of delivering higher education programmes. Additionally, "university" is a protected term under company law.
On 20 September, it was announced at a press conference that the Class of ’92 – a group of former Manchester United footballers led by Mr Neville – would create a higher education institution in partnership with Lancaster, to be known as University Academy ’92.
Other institutions calling themselves a “university academy” appear to be exclusively at school level, making this a first in higher education.
Asked by Times Higher Education how permission to use the term “university academy” was granted, a DfE spokeswoman said: “University Academy ’92 will open up exciting opportunities for people to study and earn a degree.
“As is usual for any new institutions, the group submitted a request for permission to use the term university, which, given it is formally a joint venture with Lancaster University, was approved.”
The Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998 states that an educational institution “shall not” use a name including the word “university” unless “authorised by or by virtue of any Act or Royal Charter” or “approved by the Privy Council for the purposes of this section”.
The DfE granted permission under the Company Limited Liability, Partnership and Business Names (Sensitive Words) and Expressions Regulations 2014. University is a protected word under the legislation and the DfE issued a “non-objection” letter in this case.
A UA92 spokeswoman said: “The UA92 partners have already established confirmation with DfE that they would not object to the use of the title ‘University Academy' on the basis of Lancaster’s role and involvement in the project.
“The title will be registered with Companies House when the organisation is established. The purpose of the press conference was to launch a period of consultation, to involve other partners and test the market.”
A Lancaster University spokeswoman said the institution will be investing in the venture, but the level of that investment is "still to be determined". As yet, no ownership vehicle for UA92 has been registered with Companies House.
Gill Evans, emeritus professor of medieval theology at the University of Cambridge and an expert on higher education governance, said of the DfE’s decision: “This makes it look much too easy to get permission to insert the word ‘university’ into the title of a mere scheme.”
The new Office for Students will take on responsibility for granting degree-awarding powers and university title when it comes into operation, with a consultation expected on the entire new regulatory framework in English higher education.
Aldwyn Cooper, Regent’s University London vice-chancellor and a member of the Advisory Committee on Degree Awarding Powers, which considers applications for university title, said: “I do think that acceptance of ‘university academy’ as a title may be the thin end of the wedge and that the position could only become more difficult after the forthcoming consultation on regulation, degree-awarding powers and university title eases everything up.”