A higher education college in Liverpool is considering a challenge to new legislation governing use of the title "university" that becomes law in a fortnight's time.
Under the rules set out in a commencement order bringing section 39 of the Teaching and Higher Education Act into force, institutions may not call themselves university or university college unless authorised to do so by the Privy Council. About a dozen university colleges that had adopted the title without permission are obliged to change their names by February 1 or face charges under trade description laws.
Tony Grayson, secretary of Liverpool Hope University College, said the college's lawyers were scrutinising the validity of the order. They are in discussions with Department for Education and Employment lawyers about the changes, which mean that only institutions awarding their own degrees will in future be able to apply for university college status.
"We believe we are a university college in the meaningful sense of the word," said Mr Grayson.
But Liverpool Hope had been left "in limbo", he said, because the new criteria for eligibility for degree-awarding powers are still being formulated by the Quality Assurance Agency. These are not expected to be published until March at the earliest and any applications pending have been frozen.
"We are caught in a classic catch-22," Mr Grayson said. "Despite our happy relationship with Liverpool University and an excellent quality assurance report, we are being pushed into applying for our own degree-validation procedures against our wishes. But even though we are ready to do this, we are prevented from doing so."
Liverpool Hope has been an established church college for 150 years and Mr Grayson said it would be "extremely unfortunate" if the college had to give up the university college status to which it believes it is entitled. "The commencement order has come in very abruptly but not only is it bad timing, it concentrates entirely on degree-awarding powers, which misses the point," he said.
Michael Coughlan, principal of Trinity and All Saints University College in Leeds, was also waiting to apply but said the real anxiety was that a new binary divide would be created.
Philip Robinson, Chichester Institute director, said he was "on tenterhooks" waiting for a Privy Council decision for degree-awarding powers allowing him to use the title University College Chichester legitimately. "This is vital to us as we are a university in every sense except our size," he said. "But people can not distinguish between us and the local FE college."
However, Michael Wright, head of Canterbury Christ Church University College, which does have degree-awarding powers, said the rule change was necessary because some institutions were using the title without permission. "At Christ Church we have earned it," he said.