An agricultural college bidding for degree-awarding powers has been criticised by quality watchdogs for the way it has used the title "university sector college".
Writtle College, near Chelmsford in Essex, made inaccurate and "excessive" claims in its promotional material circulated in the UK and abroad, auditors concluded in a report for the Higher Education Quality Council.
This included use of the title "university sector college" without clarifying the term, the report says.
But the college hit back this week, claiming the report's criticisms were "unsubstantiated".
Michael Alder, Writtle's principal, said: "I do not know of anything the auditors could put their finger on to support those comments."
The college had invited HEQC auditors in because it wanted backing in its bid for degree-awarding powers. But it had suffered from a poor quality assurance appraisal because the audit, in November last year, was turned into a joint visit between HEQC and the Higher Education Funding Council for England, Professor Alder said. The visit had proved to be an "unbalanced exercise", resulting in contradictions in the subsequent HEQC and HEFCE reports, he added.
The HEQC audit team examined a range of the college's promotional publications and found the content and presentation were the same, whether targeted at home students, overseas students or placed on the college's home page on the world wide web.
Formal agreements between the college and its validating universities - which were then Anglia Polytechnic University, the University of Hertfordshire, and the University of Essex - left Writtle with full discretion in the promotion of its courses. The college has since set up an exclusive validating relationship with the University of Essex.
The report says auditors found "there were inaccuracies, some of which advanced what might be construed as excessive claims and comparisons with unnamed 'competitors'". They concluded that "these statements might be open to misconception by readers, within and beyond the UK, who might be unfamiliar with the subtleties on which the college's claims might be based, or with the particular use of the term 'university sector college' without any further clarification".
The HEQC has called on the college to review its promotional material so that "its hard-won reputation is not jeopardised by the distribution of potentially misleading information to prospective applicants".