University title free-for-all

November 21, 2003

Private businesses may soon be able to call themselves universities as the government moves to scrap the requirement that institutions must have a minimum of 4,000 students, it was predicted this week.

Such a move would "open the floodgates" to corporations and other commercial organisations waiting to establish their own "universities", as well as specialist institutions with tiny numbers of students, critics claimed.

Some fear it would dilute the international reputation of UK universities and encourage the so-called McDonaldisation of higher education.

But the Standing Conference of Principals hopes to persuade higher education minister Alan Johnson to drop the minimum number of higher education students requirement when it meets him on December 2. It is convinced the government will see it as a logical step.

Scop's hopes rest with this government's consultation paper on rules governing university status, which proposes to make it easier for "organisations outside the traditional university and college sector" to gain degree-awarding powers, and for those bodies to gain full university status.

The document, which also proposes scrapping the requirement that universities must have a broad subject spread, says that, while the minimum student numbers requirement remains, "we recognise that smaller, specialist organisations, by their very nature, may find this criterion difficult to meet and would welcome views on how appropriate it is for such organisations'.

The Department for Education and Skills declined to be drawn this week, saying that it would consider the results of its consultation before making a decision.

Patricia Ambrose, Scop's chief executive, said: "I think the DFES is more open to the idea than they have been in the past. We think that the sentence (about the minimum number requirement) in the consultation document is a strong hint that they are willing to seriously consider it."

Scop's meeting with Mr Johnson coincides with the publication of a report from the Higher Education Policy Institute that concludes that more relaxed university title rules are likely to lead to the creation of private single-subject commercial universities such as a Microsoft University or a Ford Motor Company University.

Bahram Bekhradnia, Hepi's director, said that if the size criterion were scrapped, there would be nothing left apart from degree-awarding powers to distinguish institutions.

But he added: "It could be, given that all the other requirements are being dropped, that this will be seen as a not particularly relevant criterion that can also go. Ministers will be very sensitive to the accusation that they are opening the floodgates. On the other hand, I think they do want to open the sector to outside forces."

James Tooley, professor of education policy at Newcastle University, said the traditionalists opposed to relaxing the rules had "already lost the battle".

He said: "The main advantage of such a move is that it allows corporations to come in and for quality to flourish through competition. It would be popular with middle-class families who send their children to small specialist arts and performing arts colleges, so from ministers' point of view it would be a vote-winner."

But Kel Fidler, vice-chancellor of the University of Northumbria, was adamant that it would be a backward step. He said: "Already, with what is being proposed, we are in danger of diluting the international standing of our universities. This would let in all kinds of people who have a strange idea of what a university is."

Roger Brown, principal of the Southampton Institute and former chief executive of the Higher Education Quality Council, said there would be concerns, on the grounds of quality, about dropping the subject spread and size criteria. But he added that Scop's optimism that the proposed new rules would make it easier for colleges to gain a university title might be ill-founded.

Eddie McIntyre, principal of Birmingham College of Food, Tourism and Creative Studies, which has fewer than 3,000 higher education students and has recently moved into the sector from further education, said his institution would be keen to pursue university status if the size criterion was axed.

"The decision on who can call themselves a university should be based on quality and ability to provide a worthwhile service to students, not on how big you are," he said.

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