Title hopefuls: Liverpool Hope college secretary Tony Grayson and director of
marketing Sharon Bassett at the High Court in London Ministers' clampdown on the unauthorised use of the title "university college" is so unfair it is an abuse of power, the High Court heard this week.
The claims were made by counsel for Liverpool Hope University College, which took its quest to keep its unauthorised name to the High Court this week, after winning a judicial review of ministers' moves to enforce a ban. The college's counsel, Michael Fordham, said the case, against secretary of state David Blunkett, had "chilling features".
The judge, Mr Justice Newman, heard that Liverpool Hope had defied a government ban on the use of the "university college" title enforced in February this year under section 39 of the 1998 Teaching and Higher Education Act. Under the act, only institutions that have the power to award their own degrees or are a constituent college of another university are allowed to call themselves "university college". Liverpool Hope, a church college, does not meet the criteria, as its degrees are accredited by Liverpool University.
The court heard claims that Liverpool Hope had been misled by higher education minister Baroness Blackstone, who had told its principal in response to a conference question in March 1998 that it would not need to seek degree-awarding powers to retain the "university college" title, as it had such close and historical ties with Liverpool University.
The court heard that when it was made clear by ministers in June 1998 that Liverpool Hope would need degree-awarding powers to use the "university college" title, it had not had a chance to apply for them because ministers did not set the criteria to be used to confer such powers until October 1999, eight months after the ban was put in place. Counsel also argued that ministers had reneged on assurances that reasonable time would be given for colleges to seek authorisation to use the title before the ban was enforced.
The court heard that it was unfair to offer "indulgence" to Warrington and Scarborough colleges, which were given special permission by ministers to use "university college", without allowing Hope similar concessions.
"To conclude, there are chilling features of the case, which must give your lordship considerable unease," said Mr Fordham.
Mark Hoskins, for Mr Blunkett, argued that ministers were seeking to end misuse of the title, as recommended by Lord Dearing, "as soon as possible". To have allowed all colleges in Hope's position to apply for degree-awarding powers would have created delays of at least three and a half years.
He said that the college and the court "should not put too much stock" in comments made at a
conference by Baroness Blackstone, and that her guidance had not disadvantaged the college.
He said there was no ambiguity in the law and that Liverpool Hope "openly admits it is continuing to act in breach of section 39 of the act" and is "misleading the public" by continuing to use the title.
Exemptions for Warrington and Scarborough were given because they were involved in merger talks with universities and were in a different position from Hope, so it was not unfair on Hope, Mr Hoskins said.
Judgment will be handed down next week.