'TAKE ME to the University of Central England,' a student might ask a taxi driver at Birmingham's New Street station - if only students could afford taxis, with grants frozen and loans coldshouldered. The driver would probably be puzzled, not because Birmingham taxi drivers have a poor knowledge of their city, but because until very recently the University of Central England was known as Birmingham Polytechnic.
The same scene could take place all over England and Wales during the next few days as brandnew students arrive at brand-new universities. Leicester Polytechnic has become De Montfort University, only to be told that Simon de Montfort was as well known as a persecutor of the Jews as he was as the summoner of England's first parliament.
Bristol Polytechnic is now the University of the West of England. Greenwich and Westminster too have acquired universities - formerly Thames and Central London polytechnics respectively. And Liverpool Polytechnic has called itself John Moores University after the founder of Littlewoods (and father of the chairman of its governors).
The source of these startling shifts in the vocabulary of higher education is the White Paper published last year. The Government announced its plan to abandon the 25-year-old 'binary system', the division of higher education into universities and polytechnics.
This year, the Further and Higher Education Act puts the plan into effect. As a result the number of universities has almost doubled. The present Government has created, at a stroke, far more universities than any other in Britain's history. But, although the decision to end the old division was supported by all parties, at times ministers seem to have been nervous about the consequences of this wholesale enlargement of the university sector. It was almost as if they wanted things to stay much as they were before. Their motto could well have been 'plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose'.
First, nobbled by the universities, the former Secretary of State for Education, Kenneth Clarke, banned the use of the descriptive 'city' or 'new' university, ostensibly to avoid confusion.
This hard line has not held. Last week Leeds and Manchester polytechnics became 'metropolitan' universities.
Then it was decided that, unlike the old universities, the polytechnics should not receive royal charters; instead they have been established by administrative fiat. Not that it makes much difference in practice; despite their charters, universities have conspicuously failed to keep political interference at bay during the past decade.
More importantly, perhaps, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (there are now separate ones for Scotland and Wales, but that is another story) has been instructed to prevent 'mission drift'.
In other words the Government wants it to prevent the former polytechnics from whoring after donnish gentility, however threadbare this may have become, even in the older universities. They are not to abandon non-U activities such as access courses for the disadvantaged, part-time degrees or continuing education, in favour of high-status teaching and research. There are larger issues at stake here than the amour propre of old universities silently outraged by the pretensions of upstart ex-polytechnics, though that certainly does come into it.
Many people in universities see the abolition of the binary system and the upgrading of the polytechnics as part of a pattern of discrimination going back to the Conservative victory in 1979 and the Thatcher government's long war against Britain's liberal institutions. They have still to be convinced that the present reform should be seen instead in the light of John Major's classless society.
But a more serious issue is what the name changes mean for the ex-polytechnics. Titles influence images, which in turn help to determine missions. In the mass higher education system of the future, as in all mass markets, choices will be shaped by these images as student-consumers act more and more like impulse buyers. What message is being sent to the market by Birmingham Polytechnic relabelling itself the University of Central England - to the despair of taxi drivers and delight of signwriters, or the Polytechnic of Central London, the original 'poly', becoming the University of Westminster?
Of course, the caricature of universities as ivory towers is unjust. The civic universities and former colleges of advanced technology were founded with aims not so different from those of the polytechnics. Some are even contemplating a return to their roots.
But the Oxbridge model and the prestige of America's great research universities are powerful counter-attractions. Universities judge themselves, and are judged, by their ability to attract high-quality students, mostly young and preferably full-time, and by their research reputations. Everything else is subordinate to these twin imperatives.
The polytechnics grew out of further education, a tradition opposed to the university mainstream. By offering different pathways to educational progress, the colleges out of which they were formed in the mid-1960s were among a cluster of institutions - university extra-mural departments and the Workers' Educational Association (and later the Open University) were others - which offered an alternative to the hidebound traditions of grammar school and university.
They were not as radical a challenge as that represented by higher-grade schools, workers' colleges and the WEA in the early years of the century, but provided another road, more provincial perhaps, even municipal, to the same New Jerusalem.
The success of the polytechnics, a point lost on the present Government, is the result of their imaginative development of this alternative tradition - reaching those students the universities could not, or would not, reach.
Now they have changed the label on the bottle - a perverse marketing strategy some say. The hope is that the new universities will influence the old more than the reverse. In the short-term, that may be right. But the longhaul resilience of the university, its obscure ideals and insidious practices, is remarkable in the record of history.
The author is Professor of Education, University of Leeds, and former editor of the Times Higher Education Supplement. Political Commentary returns next week.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies