SELECT higher education institutions should be able to call themselves university colleges, according to a working party set up by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals.
But it wants legislation to clamp down on indiscriminate use of the title, warning that this could damage the reputation of British higher education.
A report before the CVCP council today says: "It is desirable for the title of university college (and, indeed, that of university) to retain a particular significance which can be reasonably interpreted and trusted by the outside world. If this position is not safeguarded, potential students in particular could be seriously misled."
Government policy states that only colleges which are an integral part of a university can be university colleges. In a letter to institutions last June, education minister Eric Forth warned that relaxing this strict line could mean up to 50 colleges adopting the new title and this "would constitute a significant change in the nature of UK higher education".
The position could change following Sir Ron Dearing's inquiry into higher education, which took evidence on the issue this week from the CVCP and the Standing Conference of Principals.
The CVCP set up its working party last September amid fears that current practice on university titles was confused and inconsistent. Colleges had been displaying growing frustration when their rivals adopted the title "university college" without formal authority. But forcing institutions to remove the titles was also unpopular since many had invested heavily in their new image.
The working party, chaired by John Lauwerys, secretary and registrar at Southampton University, recommends setting up a code of practice to advise on relationships between colleges and their accrediting university. It also suggests making Privy Council approval necessary for the use of the title university college.
The working party recommends that smaller institutions where less than 55 per cent of work is in higher education would not be eligible to adopt the title. Nor would higher education colleges be able call themselves part of the "university sector".
Institutions would only be considered eligible if they were legally part of a university but keen to retain a separate identity, or had the power to award their own taught degrees and covered a minimum number of academic subject categories, or had a special link with a local university which allowed them to use the title.
Tim Cox, executive secretary of the Standing Conference of Principals, welcomed the CVCP's "positive thinking" but he said it put too much emphasis on the size of institution. SCOP believes any institution with degree-awarding powers or formal accreditation agreement with a university should be able to call itself a university college.
Rob Withers, principal of University College Scarborough, which changed its name five years ago, said the new title was a useful way of showing it was not a further education institution.