Fries with that degree?

Are we about to see companies such as McDonald's applying to become universities? Lucy Hodges examines controversial government proposals
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The Independent Online

As top-up fees continue to grab the headlines, an equally contentious issue is causing a ruckus in academe and shows no sign of being resolved. It is the Government's plan to change the rules on what it takes to become a university. In the not-too-distant future, will we see colleges of higher education - such as Bolton Institute and University College Northampton - becoming universities? The answer is probably, yes. More to the point, will we see a Hamburger University being created in the UK as part of the McDonaldisation of higher education, or a Unipart or Cisco University? And, horror of horrors, will some further education colleges succeed in attaining university status? The established universities are aghast at the idea.

Ministers are planning to change the rules that require an aspirant university to have the powers to award research degrees such as PhDs, and to have a significant proportion of its staff engaged in research. The ostensible reason is that they want to give more attention to teaching. As it is, institutions have been in a headlong rush to add to their research portfolios. More generally, a new raft of universities could bring more choice, competition and innovation in courses and teaching styles.

Last week Universities UK responded to the Government's consultation, saying that removing the requirement for research could damage the international reputation of UK higher education. "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," said UUK president Ivor Crewe. "The Government is mistaken in its assertion that there is no link between teaching and research."

But a paper published today by the Higher Education Policy Institute, a publicly-funded think tank, takes issue with the idea that research is a defining feature of a university. It is difficult to sustain, it says, because the conduct of research is relatively new in the history of universities.

Established universities argue that teaching which is not provided in a research environment is second-class. "The evidence for that is at best uncertain," says Bahram Bekhradnia, author of the new paper and head of policy at the Higher Education Funding Council. "But, in any case, even if it were true that higher education teaching cannot be effective except in a research environment, this is not an argument about the criteria for the award of the title 'university', but about the criteria for allowing taught degrees to be offered at all. That pass has been sold, for better or worse, and the link between teaching and research is not relevant to the question of university title in this country."

He is supported in his views by Lord May, the president of the Royal Society, who this week rejected the suggestion that high-quality science courses cannot exist in teaching-only departments. "There is a widely held view, supported by repeated assertion and little else, that good university teaching requires staff to be active in research," he said. "But, as teaching -only colleges in the US demonstrate, excellent undergraduate courses can exist in departments without active research programmes."

In addition to breaking the link between teaching and research, ministers are proposing to repeal the rule that institutions seeking to become universities should lay on a range of disciplines. That opens the door to specialist universities. The only rules that will remain are that universities should have the power to award taught degrees and have at least 4,000 full-time students, 3,000 of them on degree-level courses.

"In some respects, this is a far more significant development, as it opens the way to narrowly-focused commercial enterprises establishing universities - a Microsoft University, for example, or a Pearson University," says the new paper. "Virtually all but the smallest public non-university colleges will be able to achieve degree-awarding powers and university status, and in a few years there could be a number of private or corporate universities as well."

Corporate institutions exist already. Perhaps the oldest is Unipart, based at Cowley, near Oxford, which makes automotive components and has a multi-million-pound complex of lecture halls and computerised learning centres for workers. Would such institutions really want to become universities? "I don't think it's something we would go for, certainly not immediately," said a spokesman for Unipart. "What we have at the moment is designed to meet our needs as a business. I'm not sure what we would get from going for university status."

But other companies, notably Pearson, might be more interested. So maybe the established universities have cause to be concerned, says Bekhradnia. Not only would their exclusive club be threatened but perhaps they have a point that the British university brand could become tarnished.

Further education colleges would certainly be interested in applying for university status if they could get round the rules on size. As it is, it looks as though those rules would prevent any FE college becoming a university. But the Standing Conference on Principals (Scop), the body which represents all higher education colleges, is challenging the rules on size.

At a meeting last week with Alan Johnson, the Higher Education minister, Scop argued for the rule requiring universities to have 4,000 students, of whom 3,000 are on degree courses, to be dropped. "If you have got through the scrutiny process for university status, that is evidence that you are a robust academic community, you are in a good state of financial health and your governance is sound. So why is size such a critical issue?," said Scop chief executive, Patricia Ambrose. "There are very small specialist universities in places like China, Japan and Austria"

To head off criticism, the Government has asked the Quality Assurance Agency to tighten the rules. Institutions seeking taught degree-awarding powers will have to show that staff are abreast of developments in research and scholarship in their area. Those wanting to become universities will be reviewed every six years. Scop is seeking legal advice on these reviews. It believes that the vice-chancellors' concerns about the reforms affecting quality are mistaken and that universities are simply protecting a cartel. "The idea that this is a wholesale liberalisation is fanciful," says Roger Brown, director of Southampton Institute. "It is indeed so far from the facts that it suggests wholly different motivations on the part of those concerned with it: self-protection on the part of the existing university community."