Ministers reveal rules on status

October 29, 1999

Strict rules governing the use of the title "university", announced today by ministers, will instantly rule out bids for university status for at least 11 higher education colleges.

Ministers confirmed today that they have accepted the Quality Assurance Agency's plans to erect tough hurdles in the way of colleges seeking their own degree-awarding powers or university status.

But they have refused the agency's bid for the power to remove the right to award degrees from "failing" universities.

"Our universities and colleges are second to none, with a world-class reputation," said higher education minister Tessa Blackstone. "Degrees need to be rigorous and they must ensure high standards. They also need to carry a recognised stamp of quality. Students deserve nothing less and employers want nothing less."

Any college aspiring to university college status, or any university college seeking full university status will have to demonstrate an impeccable record of quality for five years. Applicants will automatically fail if an institution has received a single unsatisfactory grade or a call for improvement in any teaching quality assessment, or has had any critical institutional audits. At least 11 colleges of higher education - including Bolton Institute, which has submitted an application - will not be able to apply. Dozens of existing universities will also fall foul of the rules if they have to apply under the new criteria.

Institutions currently fail teaching quality assessments if they receive a single fail grade - grade one out of four - in any of six assessment categories. They are asked for improvement plans if they score a low grade two in any three of the six areas.

Universities that fall into these categories include East Anglia, which received three grade twos for its sociology provision in 1995, and Leeds University, which failed its media studies assessment in the 1996-98 assessment round. A further five new universities would be ruled out if they had to reapply under the new system. Many others have been criticised for poor quality control in institutional audits.

It is understood that ministers have also accepted controversial plans to force institutions to apply separately for degree-awarding powers at undergraduate and postgraduate level. Colleges will have to clear both of these hurdles to gain a university college title. And three hurdles - gaining undergraduate powers, taught postgraduate powers and research degree-awarding powers - will be put in front of institutions who seek full university status. The new rules - unknown to university and higher education college leaders as The THES went to press - are likely to infuriate the sector. The Standing Conference of Principals had already said the planned changes "threaten the vitality, diversity and future development of the higher education colleges ...

It is in direct contrast to the government's stated intention to develop more diverse and high-quality learning opportunities."

The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals had said the plans were "unacceptable".

But the CVCP is expected to be happy ministers have chosen not to give the QAA powers to take away universities' degree-awarding powers, a move that would require primary legislation.

"The government agreed that prompt and effective action must be taken where there is failure to maintain acceptable degree standards," said the Department for Education and Employment. "The existing powers of the QAA and the funding bodies should be fully used in these circumstances, but ministers will continue to review whether further powers are necessary."

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