Dons angry as colleges get above themselves

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The Independent Online
COLLEGES could face prosecution under the Trades Descriptions Act for inserting the word "university" into their titles without permission.

Vice-chancellors of the longer- established universities have written to Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, insisting that she should take action against higher education colleges which call themselves "university college" or use the subtitle "a college in the university sector". They are also suggesting that colleges could be reported to trading standards officers about the wrongful use of titles.

Institutions must seek permission from the Privy Council to use the word "university" in their names. Only universities are able to award their own degrees, although some colleges are accredited by universities to award theirs. The law does not allow colleges to do this unless they are an integral part of a university.

Among colleges which are using the title "university" are University College, Scarborough and St Mary's University College, Twickenham, which claim they have a right to them because they are repectively parts of the universities of Leeds and Surrey.

The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals (CVCP) is prepared to accept these arguments if colleges are strongly linked with a university, but it believes some others may be in breach of the law. Some of England's 50 higher education colleges, suchas Nene College, Northampton, use a logo with the words "University Sector College", in which the word "sector" is much smaller than those on either side of it. In a letter to Mrs Shephard, Dr Kenneth Edwards, chairman of the CVCP, suggests that the universities could make complaints to local authority trading standards officers if the Government does not take up the issue. Last night he said Mrs Shephard should issue a clear directive to the colleges not to use the word "university" in this way: "We c ould take it to the trading standards officers, but we would prefer not to get involved in that kind of harmful legal squabble. We want to get it cleared up without a messy fight."

Representatives of the higher education colleges were unrepentant. The Standing Conference of Principals (SCP), which represents the heads of the colleges, has openly encouraged its members to advertise themselves as "colleges in the university sector".

"Given that the majority of our institutions are validated, assessed, funded or accredited in the same way as universities, it seems proper that we should look for a title that more adequately describes what our institutions do," said Tim Cox, executive secretary of the SCP.

David Smith, assistant principal of St Mary's University College, Twickenham, said its students had been studying on university courses since 1850, first through affiliation to London University and then to Surrey.

He said: "We haven't taken this title unto ourselves. It comes to us because we are part of the University of Surrey. The fact that we are financially independent does not mean we are not part of the university. "I would hope the CVCP is not engaging in trying to restrict competition."

A spokesman for the Local Authorities Co-ordinating Body on Food and Trading Standards said there could be a prima facie case under the Trades Descriptions Act against any college which was not part of a university but which used the title.

"If I were a university which was concerned I would have a word with my trading standards department. It might well look into it and consider a prosecution," he said.