Path to university title smoothed as threshold lowered to 1,000 students (UK)

By John Morgan

The government is set to push ahead with plans to create a new generation of universities by lowering the qualifying  threshold for university title from 4,000 to 1,000 students. Times Higher Education understands that easing the path to university title for small institutions is expected to be a  central feature in the government’s responses to consultations on last year’s higher education White Paper. The move is one of the policies announced in the White Paper that does not require legislation through a new higher  education bill.

The White Paper set out plans to change the criteria for degree-awarding powers and university title as a way of making it  “easier for new providers to enter the sector”. However, the proposed expansion of private provision via the opening of degree-awarding powers to non-teaching bodies will  require legislation. Degree-awarding powers are, and will remain, a prerequisite for obtaining university title – leaving expansion on this front partially blocked.

The government is expected to publish its responses to the White Paper consultation and the technical consultation on the regulatory framework after Parliament returns from the Whitsun recess on 11 June. At present, an institution must have at least 4,000 full-time equivalent higher education students, of which at least 3,000 are studying for a degree, before it can apply for university title, a status awarded by the Privy Council. The government is expected to confirm that it will implement, as the technical consultation proposed, “a reduction in  numbers to 1,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) higher education students of which at least 750 are studying for a degree”.

According to Andy Westwood, chief executive of GuildHE, such a change would mean a “level playing field” for the smaller specialist institutions in the group and allow them to drop the “confusing” university college title. One of the front-runners to become the UK’s first private for-profit university, BPP University College, has 5,500 full-time equivalent higher education students, so it would not be affected by the change. Carl Lygo, BPP’s principal, said it would “take a view probably next year” on applying for university title, but it is  “happy with university college” at the moment. BPP obtained its university college title via Companies House and a stamp of approval from David Willetts, the universities and science minister, rather than via the Privy Council.

Some sector experts say current guidelines may present barriers to private providers gaining university title, questioning  why no such institution has sought the status recently. The Further and Higher Education Act 1992 makes a series of  specifications about the types of institutions to which the Privy Council may award university title. But Mr Lygo said: “Under the existing rules, once BPP achieved 4,000 students – which we already have – we could apply for university title.”

Source: Times Higher Education