Vice-chancellors and higher education college heads are preparing for a showdown with the government and quality chiefs over plans for tougher rules on university titles and degree-awarding powers.
They claim that proposals to make it harder for institutions to award degrees and call themselves a university or university college amount to "an attempt to justify rationalisation".
The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, usually wary of criticising the Quality Assurance Agency, has told government officials that the plans contained in a QAA consultation paper are unacceptable.
In a letter to the Department for Education and Employment, the CVCP said it "does not believe that either the QAA or the government has evidence to support what appears in the QAA paper to be a pre-sumption of profound mistrust in the whole university sector".
The condemnation of the QAA's plans came as Liverpool Hope University College announced it had won the go-ahead to challenge the government in court over rules governing use of the university college title.
Liverpool Hope has refused to join other higher education colleges in complying with instructions to drop the university college title. Colleges without degree-awarding powers and not in a federal relationship with a university have spent thousands of pounds on name changes.
This week, Liverpool Hope was granted leave by a High Court judge in the first stage of the judicial review process to challenge the title rules. These will be harder to satisfy if the QAA's proposals for degree-awarding powers are approved.
Both university and higher education college leaders are strongly opposed to three QAA proposals: to differentiate between universities and university colleges, with strict limits on the awarding powers of university colleges; to put new hurdles in the way of institutions hoping to move up from higher education college status; and to push through primary legislation to allow the QAA to remove degree-awarding powers.
They object to the QAA's suggestion that colleges should consider merging with universities rather than applying for degree-awarding powers and its proposals to limit the levels and subject areas covered by the awarding powers of university colleges.
In response to the QAA paper, the Standing Conference of Principals has warned: "This approach threatens the vitality, diversity and future development of the higher education colleges. It is in direct contrast to the government's stated intention to develop more diverse and high-quality learning opportunities within a genuine culture of lifelong learning."