It's a row that shows no sign of abating: what constitutes a university education? First, Education Secretary Charles Clarke annoyed the universities by suggesting that higher education was about training people for jobs in the global marketplace. Now he and his Higher Education minister (until last week), Margaret Hodge, have outraged them with plans to create a new new raft of universities out of the 52 colleges of higher education and, even worse, to include the corporate universities such as Unipart that have sprung up to train employees.
From next year we could see seven new universities emerging from what are now colleges of higher education - and that's not counting any corporate universities that might be given the university title. The headline writers have had a field day. "Fears over dumbed-down universities", said one. "Now even small colleges can follow polytechnics and become universities," said another.
For once the newspapers are making common cause with the vice-chancellors and the lecturers' unions. Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, was quoted as saying: "It makes a mockery of the very concept of a university. This decision probably makes the UK government the only one in the Western world that says you can be a university without conducting research."
Ministers promised, in a White Paper earlier this year, to ease the path for colleges to become universities. They are now planning to change the rules to allow institutions to become universities even though they don't have the power to award research degrees such as Ph.Ds.
The argument, according to Mrs Hodge, is about the importance of teaching in university life. "We have said that we want universities to focus on their mission," she explains. "It's a legitimate mission for universities to be very good teaching institutions putting on high-quality courses at a higher education level. This gives voice to that mission."
The row pits politicians and colleges against the university establishment. And there is no sign of a compromise in sight. Ministers appear determined to push the change through and to make the university system more diverse and more like the American. They want to give more priority to teaching, an area which has been sorely neglected in British higher education. Contrary to what the AUT's Sally Hunt says, there are plenty of countries in Europe and the United States which award first degrees and Masters degrees but not Ph.Ds. Their academics undertake research but research is not seen as their prime function in the way that it is in the UK.
In fact, the majority of American universities fall into this category. They include many state universities and some of the US's most prestigious liberal arts colleges, such as Williams in Massachusetts, Swarthmore in Pennsylvania and Wellesley, also in Massachusetts, where Hillary Clinton and Barbara Bush were students.
European countries also have universities which award first degrees and Masters degrees but not Ph.Ds., according to Professor David Green, principal of University College Worcester, one of the institutions which stands to become a new university in the first wave. The British critics have been wrong to suggest that institutions without research degree-awarding powers don't do research, he emphasises.
University College Worcester carries out research and has a reputation for its work on early childhood education and for housing the National Pollen Research Centre. "It's complete nonsense to say that the internationally-recognised definition of a university is an institution that awards research degrees," says Professor Green. In Germany, fachhochschules award undergraduate degrees and Masters degrees; and institutions such as Halmstad University in Sweden do the same.
Other college heads argue that their institutions are as good as, if not better than the universities. We outperform the benchmarks, particularly on teaching excellence and low drop-out rates," says John Cater, principal of Edge Hill College and chairman of the Standing Conference of Principals.
But the established universities remain adamant that the change will devalue degrees and damage the global reputation of British higher education. Roderick Floud, the president of Universities UK, chooses his words carefully when criticising the government's plans. The established universities are concerned that the character of a university, based as it is on research as well as teaching (and the two are linked, he says), should not be diminished by making colleges into universities if they're not undertaking research and teaching for research degrees. "We think that the award of research degrees goes with the conduct of research," he says. "It's an important means of the dissemination of research."
Professor Michael Sterling, the vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham and the new chairman of the Russell Group, the collection of top universities in the UK, agrees. The reform is likely to damage the international standing of British universities, he says. "The dangers are that in the very markets for which the UK is strong, particularly in the Far East, the creation of a wave of additional universities would be seen as confusing at the very least."
People overseas are well aware that the amount spent per student on university education has declined by almost one-half in the past 20 years, he says. "They ask how we are maintaining standards if the unit of resource has declined in this way while participation in higher education has risen from 20 per cent to 35 per cent." The vice-chancellors are exercised also about the idea of companies such as Cisco, the computer giant, being awarded the university title for their training and development activities. Mrs Hodge specifically referred to Cisco in an interview with The Independent. "The nature of universities is going to change over the next decade," she says. "You have these new corporate universities starting up to train their workforces. To ensure that they are properly validated in the future they will probably seek official university status. And to protect quality and value we will need to give them the recognition they need."
Observers believe that the Government opened up applications for university status to all-comers as a way of giving credibility to the planned NHS University for cleaners to consultants, which is already upsetting the established universities because it threatens their medical schools. Whatever the case, the universities find the move deeply threatening. "We would want the same rules applied to the private universities as the state institutions," says Professor Sterling. "There has to be fair competition."
In an attempt to head off criticism, the Government has asked the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), the standards watchdog, to tighten the criteria for universities awarding taught as opposed to research degrees. All institutions becoming universities under the new route will be reviewed every six years. According to a QAA source, that is to provide a check on new commercial universities to, for example, enable action to be taken if a for-profit university were sold on to a dodgy entrepreneur.
This does not appear to have pacified the university establishment. But it does satisfy commentators like Wendy Piatt, the senior research fellow of the Institute for Public Policy Research, who believe that institutions should be allowed to become universities so long as they meet the criteria. "I acknowledge a link between teaching and research," she says. "But that doesn't mean that the research has to be blue sky or world class to be beneficial to academic teaching."
The distinction she makes is between scholarship - keeping up with your subject and knowing about the latest developments - and world class, ground-breaking research. Keeping up with your subject is what really matters for good teaching.
Organisations outside the university establishment are ecstatic. "I applaud what Mrs Hodge is doing," says Geoffrey Alderman, the vice-president of academic affairs at the American InterContinental University in London. "It is long overdue. I don't think there is any necessary link between teaching excellence and research excellence. It is a great red herring in academia."
Roger Brown, the director of Southampton Institute, a college of higher education, is also on the government's side, believing it is logical to drop the requirement to make all universities have the power to award research degrees. "If you want to concentrate research funding in a few institutions as the Government does, and that includes funding for research students and you want more universities you have got to change the rules," he says.
The proponents of change are taken aback by the strength of the established universities' reaction. Mrs Hodge said she was disappointed that the universities were so threatened by the additional competition.
"The idea that the quality of education that people receive in some of these colleges, such as the London Institute or University College Worcester, is of lower esteem than that in London Metropolitan University, is insulting," she said.
Patricia Ambrose, the general secretary of the Standing Conference of Principals which represents all higher education colleges, remarked: "The universities are a very effective cartel."
THE NEW WAVE
The first wave of new universities:
University College Northampton
Canterbury Christ Church University College
The London Institute
University College Worcester
Corporations that might go for university title:
ABB (Asea Brown Boveri) Academy