Vice-chancellors have backed calls to abandon the requirement that organisations have at least 4,000 students and a broad spread of subjects before they can qualify for the title "university", despite fears that it will affect the international reputation of British higher education, writes Tony Tysome.
A week after The THES reported mounting speculation that the government was ready to drop minimum student numbers and the demand for a wide subject spread in its revised criteria, Universities UK has backed the proposals.
In the submission it made this week to the government consultation on proposed new criteria for bestowing degree-awarding powers and the university title, UUK says it "acknowledges that subject spread criteria are no longer a major issue and suggests that the size criterion could be relaxed".
But UUK says it has "grave concerns" about plans to allow the creation of teaching-only universities by dropping the requirement that organisations have research degree-awarding powers to use the title.
The organisation says it has assembled evidence that the government would be wrong to award the university title to institutions with taught degree-awarding powers only.
Ivor Crewe, president of UUK, said: "We are clear that a stable long-term research culture - requiring at least a threshold level of staff with research experience - is fundamental to successful teaching at and above honours degree level.
"We therefore believe that the government is mistaken in its assertion that there is no link between teaching and research.
"Given the continued threat to the long-term support for research in parts of the sector, we believe there is no alternative to retaining the requirement for research degree-awarding powers as an essential criterion for university title.
"To remove this requirement could damage UK higher education and its international reputation," Professor Crewe said.
UUK says that Quality Assurance Agency subject review reports point to numerous reasons why a research environment is essential for maintaining the quality of teaching.
The organisation's submission also adds that the minimum student numbers requirement should be relaxed only for "specialist institutions with a high proportion of postgraduate students".