University colleges have warned that they may be forced to close degree courses if the government pursues plans to make them change their names.
They said that proposed strict rules on the use of the university college title, included in the government's response to the Dearing report, will demolish their hard-earned position in the higher education market. Some have said that they are prepared to challenge any attempt to remove their title in the European Court.
The government says in its response paper that only university-governed or federal colleges, or those with taught-degree awarding powers, should be allowed to use the title.
It rules out colleges with a "particular relationship" with one university and threatens legal action against those institutions that continue to use "confusing" titles without permission.
Institutions which for years have been using the name university college and whose degrees are accredited by a university condemned the "drawbridge mentality" of the government's proposals.
Robert Withers, principal of University College Scarborough, said the criteria failed to take account of the fact that university colleges were usually subject to the same quality assurance procedures as their partner university. Scarborough's relationship with York University and its ability to recruit higher education students could be jeopardised by the proposed rules, he added.
"The question is: what do we change the title to? If we have to change it, it will certainly affect our ability to offer higher education in this region. We will be left without a proper classification of ourselves," he said.
Malcolm Rhodes, dean of University College Warrington, said the proposed criteria would throw his institution into a "critical situation". He said:
"It would threaten our ability to provide higher education. For institutions such as ours, with about 1,000 higher education students, it will be a case of concentrating on sub-degree work and leaving degree-level work to wither on the vine."
But Simon Lee, principal of Liverpool Hope University College, said that his institution would stand its ground on the issue and was prepared to challenge the government in the European Court if necessary.
"We are completely confident that the government does not have a chance to take legal action against an institution that continues to use the title. If it tried to take action, it would make our day," he said.