Robert Oxtoby argues that institutions that can award degrees should be allowed to call themselves universities.
Every now and then during the past 150 years, the higher education community in Britain has become anxious about the idea of a university and what it is that distinguishes it from any other institution.
In the wake of moves to create a system of mass higher education, the debate has now resurfaced although, this time around, it is complicated by concerns about diversity and institutional missions, quality assurance and academic standards.
As we strive to establish an agenda, a fair amount of confusion is evident. The number of institutions using or wishing to use the university college title is increasing and will probably continue to do so. Some of these institutions regard themselves as universities in waiting. Others do not. Some have a significant research capability. Others do not.
In the meantime, we have reached a stage where a large incorporated institution with full degree-awarding powers is being marginalised because it is not allowed to call itself a university. I cannot believe that this is a credible state of affairs.
During my lifetime the number of universities in Britain has increased more than fivefold. The Government's 1991 White Paper announced that all polytechnics would be allowed to adopt a university title and that consideration would be given to establishing criteria to enable other institutions to have "flexibility over their titles in the same way as polytechnics".
Before this, university titles had been acquired in a variety of ways, some - but not all of which had involved an element of time-serving or apprenticeship.
The younger civic universities such as Exeter, Hull and Leicester, were founded originally as university colleges and offered courses leading to London external degrees. Keele was founded initially as a university college and for a time offered its own degrees under the sponsorship of three other universities. By way of contrast, the newer universities established in the 1960s - Essex, Lancaster, York and the like - were given full degree-awarding powers from the outset, although their work was subject to external oversight by academic advisory committees.
Up until a year or so ago, the criteria which an institution had to satisfy in order to qualify for a university title were concerned exclusively with size, spread of subject groups and the power to award degrees. They were introduced in 1991. Only a few institutions have acquired a university title in this way. Others waiting in the wings, like my own institution in Bolton, now have longer to wait because in June 1994 the then secretary of state moved the goal posts.
John Patten re-invented the apprenticeship principle with a vengeance. He insisted that following the acquisition of power to award its own taught and research degrees, an institution must be able to demonstrate a track record of not less than three years of successfully maintaining degree standards in its different subject areas, and that its strategic plans offer the prospect of these standards being maintained in the future, before qualifying for a university title.
Some institutions waiting for a university title have been offering degree programmes successfully for 30 years or more. This seems to many of us like as good an apprenticeship as anybody could reasonably require.
So why did Mr Patten change the criteria? At the time, he was at great pains to stress that the expansion of higher education should not be allowed to dilute quality and academic standards. Subsequently, he has made it abundantly clear that in his view the country does not need any more universities.
In practice, however, I doubt whether introducing additional hurdles for universities in waiting will do anything to enhance quality or standards, either in colleges or in universities. All the signs are that, regardless of title, higher education institutions will seek increasingly to offer courses leading to much the same range of qualifications. Some may seek to concentrate heavily on postgraduate work and others may choose to emphasise sub-degree programmes. Institutional missions will vary, but it will not be possible to distinguish between institutions simply on the basis of the range of degrees or qualifications which they offer.
What seems likely to happen is that institutions will be differentiated primarily in terms of age and maturity, facilities, size, research effort, degree awarding powers and perceived status or quality of provision. Even so, it makes little or no sense to try to use quality as a means of distinguishing between universities, on the one hand, and other institutions with full degree-awarding powers, on the other. As far as my own institution is concerned, the greatest single impediment to the enhancement of quality is the absence of a university title.
With or without Mr Patten's new criterion, it is obvious to everyone that the number of institutions expecting to acquire a university title within the next five or ten years is small. I doubt whether we are talking about more than half-a-dozen institutions at most. The problem is not going to go away. Nor will it be solved by trying to sort out which institutions should be allowed to call themselves university colleges.
Institutions which have gained the right to award their own taught and research degrees should be allowed to use a university title provided they meet criteria relating to size and range of provision. If ministers wish to limit the use of the title, they should consider revising the size criteria, rather than messing about with track records that are almost impossible to define.
Students, employers and the world at large simply do not understand how an institution can award its own taught and research degree and still not be allowed to call itself a university. Neither do I.
Robert Oxtoby is principal of Bolton Institute.