College heads have accused ministers of causing them planning blight by issuing baffling signals over the title "university college".
They are demanding an explanation from the Department for Education and Employment for failing to rule out use of the title by further education colleges.
Members and officials of the Standing Conference of Principals are bewildered by a letter last week from lifelong learning minister Malcolm Wicks that appears to leave the door open for some further education institutions to call themselves university colleges in their promotional literature.
Scop's member institutions have to conform to the strict rules on title use introduced early this year by the DfEE. It had raised concerns over the issue, to which Mr Wicks replied only that there was a "fine line" between colleges naming themselves a university college and using the title for promotional purposes.
His comments come more than six months after education and employment secretary David Blunkett gave Warrington Collegiate Institute - a further education sector college - special dispensation to make use of the title "for a short period" pending its negotiations for a new relationship with Manchester University.
Warrington, which calls itself Warrington University College in the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service handbook for 2000, insists discussions are continuing with both the DfEE and Manchester University. But the university has told The THES that "there is no question of the nature of the relationship changing".
A spokesman said: "Warrington is an affiliated institution and we intend it to remain so. It is in that context that discussions are taking place between the college and the DfEE."
Those Scop institutions that have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds rebranding themselves after being forced to drop the university college title because they have neither taught degree-awarding powers nor a federal relationship with a university are outraged.
A spokesman for Liverpool Hope University College, which is taking the battle to retain its title to the High Court in a judicial review hearing next month, said: "One of our competitors, a further education institution just 15 miles away, has been handed a recruitment advantage."
Dorma Irwin, chair of Scop and principal of University College Worcester, described Mr Wicks's comments as "unhelpful", and said Scop would have to seek clarification over the issue.
"If, as Mr Wicks appears to be saying, the department is prepared to turn a blind eye when an institution uses the title in promotional literature, then that devalues the significance of the title. It makes life very difficult both for institutions such as my own that have worked hard to qualify for the title and those of our member institutions that thought they were acting properly in using it but have been forced to change their name. It's very frustrating," she said.
John Cater, principal of Edge Hill College of Higher Education, which dropped the university college title in response to the DfEE's clampdown in February, said: "What is happening now is that institutions such as ours are suffering from planning blight. We need a clear statement from the DfEE as to what the processes and procedures are meant to be, rather than carrying on in this state of uncertainty."
Roger Brown, principal of Southampton Institute, pointed out that a Scop survey had discovered many further education institutions like Warrington had no more than 10 per cent higher education provision.
"I find it extraordinary that there should be any question of an institution with such a low proportion of higher education being allowed to call itself a university college," he said.
A DfEE spokesman said: "Further education colleges are covered by the same legislation as other institutions. If there are blatant misuses of the word 'university' we would want to talk to those involved.
"As far as the Warrington case is concerned, we said they had a short time and we are still working on that basis."
John Brennan, director of further education for the Association of Colleges, said some further education colleges had already released promotional material using the title before the DfEE rules were introduced.
Mr Brennan said: "It's a wider question than just the university college title because some institutions have adopted titles that are not as transparent as they should be."