Go Higher: Higher Education Colleges - It's all a matter of degrees

More and more higher education colleges are trying to include the word 'university' in their titles, writes John Izbicki
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Ever since the Queen and Privy Council agreed in 1992 to allow the country's 38 polytechnics to change their titles and call themselves universities, there's been a race by other institutions to follow suit. Luton College of Higher Education, which wanted to adopt the poly tag, was the first to be told it had as much, if not more right than many polytechnics to aim higher and was deservedly granted its university title in 1993. The queue to follow was a long one. The cachet of the university title offers a unique marketing tool for higher education institutions keen to improve their share of good quality applicants.

But the then Conservative government felt that there were enough universities and drew the line at 88 - and that wasn't even beginning to count the scores of colleges attached to the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Durham and London. Some colleges of higher education could not wait for an official imprimatur and, with the blessing of their governors and marketing departments, simply called themselves university college.

Not until last year did the Teaching and Higher Education Act forbid the use of that little word "university" in an institution's title unless the awarding of their own degrees was "authorised by any Act or Royal Charter or approved by the Privy Council". So those who'd put up their self-adopted titles without authorisation quickly had to remove them.

There are nine institutions with the right to award their own degrees and call themselves university colleges. The new boys and girls on the block are Buckinghamshire Chilterns; Bath Spa; Canterbury Christ Church; Chichester; Harper Adams; Northampton; Surrey Art & Design; Worcester, and Queen Margaret, Edinburgh.

Things have become slightly more complicated in that there are others who have degree-awarding powers but don't wish to call themselves university colleges, including the London Institute, which awards its own taught degrees; Roehampton Institute; Bolton Institute; Cheltenham and Gloucester; and Queen Margaret, Edinburgh all of which can award both taught and research degrees and so are full members of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals.

Bolton Institute and Cheltenham & Gloucester College of Higher Education declined the offer of university college status as they'd rather wait for permission to become fully fledged universities. Two other colleges are exceptions to the rule and have had the permission of David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, to call themselves university colleges as a temporary, transitional measure. They are Scarborough University College, which is about to become a part of the University of Hull, and University College Warrington, a college of further education, which is in the throes of talks on an amalgamation with the University of Manchester.

Liverpool Hope College, a Roman Catholic college of excellent repute with degrees validated by Liverpool University, has decided to challenge the law which prevents colleges without degree-awarding powers from calling themselves a university college by seeking a Judicial Review. It's very happy with its Liverpool University relationship and does not wish to award its own degrees, but does want to call itself a university college. The judicial decision is imminent.

The university title has so far eluded Edge Hill College of Higher Education, whose 69 degree programmes across most subject areas have had high marks from teaching quality assessments, and the college has topped the list of higher education institutes for graduates going straight into employment.

"Despite all our many plus points, it sometimes feels as if we are pushing a large stone up a very steep hill," says Dr John Cater, Edge Hill's director and chief executive. "We still lack a merited university college title and there appears to be general ignorance of our strengths as student- centred, regionally aware, vocationally oriented providers." But he adds with a sigh of satisfaction: "The good news is that this tends to make most of us even more determined."