Quality watchdogs must guard the intellectual integrity of colleges seeking to become universities under new government proposals, a think-tank has warned.
Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, wants the university title to refer to institutions with academic and intellectual autonomy that provide a forum for open critical debate. He wants the Quality Assurance Agency to protect intellectual rigour.
The government plans to relax rules on which institutions can award degrees, opening up the possibility of universities run by big-name companies.
Details are still being fleshed out, and the Standing Conference of Principals this week met higher education minister Alan Johnson to discuss them. But it is understood that in future it would be relatively straightforward for any institution with degree-awarding powers to become a university.
Mr Bekhradnia said: "The proposals allow universities to be created that would not be recognised as universities at present. That, in itself, is not a good thing or a bad thing - it depends on how the QAA interprets its role."
In a report published this week on the implications of the government's proposals, he argues: "As at present drafted, virtually all but the smallest public non-university colleges will be able to achieve degree-awarding powers and therefore university status and, in a few years, there could be a number of private or corporate universities as well.
"There is nothing in the criteria that require such institutions to have the academic and intellectual autonomy that we expect of our universities - or that they should provide a forum for open critical debate - but it is nevertheless important that... the QAA has such considerations in mind."
But QAA chief executive Peter Williams said the agency did not have the freedom to interpret its role and would act according to government instructions.
He said: "We will test applications against the published criteria in an objective, professional, disinterested and transparent way."