Colleges given university status under controversial government plans announced this week could be stripped of their titles after six-yearly quality audits.
The government intends to revise the criteria for taught degree-awarding powers (DAPs) as part of a fundamental shake-up that will allow non-research and specialist institutions to call themselves universities from next year.
Its proposals, which have angered many in higher education who see them as diluting the meaning and purpose of universities, will allow institutions to call themselves universities if they gain DAPs and maintain degree standards over time, as well as meeting a criterion on minimum HE student numbers. The power to award research degrees, such as PhDs, will not be necessary to gain the title university under the plans.
The Quality Assurance Agency audits universities and other higher education institutions every six years. A QAA spokesman confirmed there were no mechanisms in the current system to take degree-awarding powers, or a university title, away from an institution. The agency is drawing up draft revised criteria for DAPs and will report to government at the end of this month.
But the government said in a statement this week: "New orders for degree-awarding powers granted by the Privy Council will be for a time-limited period, with renewal of the powers subject to achievement of a satisfactory QAA audit result."
A spokeswoman for the Standing Conference of Principals, which represents most of the country's higher education colleges, said: "There is a sense of unfairness about it because of this threat of removal of degree-awarding powers. I would be very concerned that this does not become a more onerous hurdle for institutions applying for DAPs and university title under a new system."
The government named the seven higher education colleges likely to become the first new universities in more than a decade. All have DAPs already and meet the student-number criterion of 4,000 full-time-equivalent higher education students.
They are: University College Northampton, Canterbury Christ Church University College, Buckinghamshire and Chilterns University College, Liverpool Hope University College, the Bolton Institute, The London Institute and University College Worcester.
Both the London Institute and Bolton Institute have applied to be universities under the current system and will be assessed against current criteria.
The remaining five colleges hit back at claims by vice-chancellors' body Universities UK and the Association of University Teachers that the creation of universities without research degree-awarding powers downgraded the traditional university link between teaching and research. All five carry out research and said that they would consider applying for research degree-awarding powers in future.
Tony Grayson, registrar and secretary of Liverpool Hope University College, said: "I think they are taking a slightly elitist view."
Michael Wright, principal of Canterbury Christ Church University College, said: "Perhaps those universities with lower research profiles think it throws the spotlight on them."
David Green, principal of University College Worcester, said: "I think members of UUK agree on very little at the moment and that the AUT thinks that for some reason this is a threat to their members."