GERMAN fachhochschulen want the right to market themselves internationally as "universities" because, they claim, people outside Germany do not understand that they are fully-fledged higher education institutions.
University titles are essential if they are to build increasingly important academic partnerships in Europe, Asia and the United States, they argue.
One option would be to adopt the title "university of applied studies and research", said Clemens Klockner, rector of Wiesbaden Fachhochschule and spokesman for the sector.
But the fachhochschulen, which offer vocationally-oriented degrees not considered equal to German university degrees, are not seeking to follow the example of the English and Welsh polytechnics' conversion to university titles.
"We have proved ourselves here in Germany and we want to continue as a new form of tertiary sector," Professor Klockner said. "I am sceptical of developments in England. Equality does not just originate from a new name. But the fachhochschulen need to improve their status."
The fachhochschulen believe their degrees are more than equal to international bachelor degrees. They are seeking the right to award international bachelor of arts degrees after six semesters, which students could earn on their way to their diplomas, which are awarded after a minimum of eight semesters.
The planned reform of Germany's higher education already proposes giving universities the right to award international bachelor and masters degrees, but fachhochschulen have so far been excluded.
The right to use university titles and to confer BA degrees are the two key demands. The fachhochschulen also want the right to award teacher-training degrees alongside the universities.
Professor Klockner realised the fachhochschulen had an image problem when an English language translation of a five-page report he had written described Wiesbaden Fachhochschule in five different ways; as a "high school", an "engineering high school", a "polytechnic" and a "technical high school". The translator finally settled on "new type of tertiary sector" - the most cumbersome, but the only correct description. "Our problem is that there is no accurate English-language translation, and the term fachhochschule just does not travel," said Professor Klockner.
In particular, the 135 fachhochschulen come up against misunderstanding from tradition-steeped British universities and France's grandes ecoles, he says.
The fachhochschulen's strong- est subjects are engineering, information technology, economics and business management. They carry out applied rather than pure research, and their students can be awarded degrees after only eight semesters, rather than the minimum ten for a university degree. Most of the sector's students spend at least one semester abroad as part of their studies.
Twenty five years after they were founded, the fachhochschulen produce more than a quarter of Germany's graduates. However, they face several handicaps; they receive one third less funding than the universities, and their diplomas do not lead to PhDs - although the best students have the chance to convert their fachhochschulen degrees to university degrees.
Professor Klockner believes the fachhochschulen have "a good supporter" for their reform in education minister Jurgen Ruttgers, and detects growing support among the regional education ministries.
However, the German University Association, representing university professors, recently described the rectors' demands as a "provocation" to the universities.