By Angela Harrison
BBC News Online education staff
Ministers have been accused of dumbing down universities because they plan to change the criteria used to decide what can be called a university.
Degrees could be devalued, academics say
At the moment, an institution can only be called a university if it is involved in both teaching and research.
But the government wants to change the criteria in England so that an institution could be called a university if it were only involved in teaching.
It also wants to change the present rules so that if a good institution specialises in just one or two subjects, it could still be given the title university.
It has announced details of its proposals and put them out for consultation. It wants the new titles to be used by 2004/5.
The proposals have angered academics and the chief executives of existing universities who say the value of degrees from English universities could go down.
Internationally, they say a university is defined as a place of both research and teaching.
Universities UK, which represents the sector's chief executives, says university degrees could be devalued.
The organisation's president, Professor Roderick Floud, said: "Research and teaching are both fundamental to a university.
"Breaking this link would take us out of step with Europe. We are also clear that the existence of different definitions of a university in the nations of the UK will be extremely problematic.
"The government is aware of the sector's concerns on this issue."
Universities UK says it is disappointed that the government published their intended criteria without consultation.
The plans were in the government's White Paper on higher education, which was published in January.
Minister for higher education Margaret Hodge said: "The most important requirement for the university title should be the
quality of an institution's teaching and the number of students enrolled.
"Having a specialist focus should no longer be a bar to becoming a university.
why we are drawing up new criteria that will open up the door to successful
institutions who have been shut out for too long."
She said quality and standards would remain the overriding factor for granting degree awarding powers.
Academics in the Association of University Teachers (AUT) also attacked the plans, which they say will dumb down English universities and cause confusion internationally.
The union's general secretary Sally Hunt said: "This announcement makes a mockery of the very concept of a university and displays the government's completely impoverished view of higher education.
"The recognised world-wide definition of a university is an institution that does teaching and research under the same roof.
"This decision probably makes the UK government the only one in the western world that says you can be a university without conducting research."
A spokesman for the Department for Education said: "Students value the strength of institutions which focus on teaching, and we see no reason why they should be prevented from gaining a university title.
"There is no one 'legal' definition of the term university either in the UK or in European legislation.
"There are already a range of specialist universities across the EU and they are well respected. There is no reason why any new English teaching-only university will be any different."
The claim that universities could be devalued by the expansion has angered colleges of Further Education (FE).
The institutions - represented by the Association of Colleges - say commentators are ignoring the fact that many FE colleges already offer students university-level qualifications, including foundation degrees and MBAs.
Judith Norrington, of the association, said: "Colleges are already major players in higher education, and will be crucial for the government to fulfil its target of half of all young people under 30 studying in higher education by 2010.
"More than 200 FE colleges already offer students university-level courses and some FE colleges actually deliver more higher education than some small universities."