Universities: Small is Beautiful

June 12th, 2012 by Tim Kerr QC

Until recently it was a frequent lament of the élitist middle classes that the term “university” was being promiscuously applied to educational institutions less revered than some of our traditional universities, ancient and modern.  In deference to these sentiments, section 39(1) of the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998 has (since 1 February 1999) provided that a further or higher education institution in England or Wales “shall not, when making available (or offering to make available) educational services, do so under a name which includes the word “university” unless the inclusion of that word in that name is— (a) authorised by or by virtue of any Act or Royal Charter, or (b) approved by the Privy Council for the purposes of this section.

Now, however, the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) – not the Department for Education – has published its 63 page response  to the consultation exercise on the higher education White Paper, Students at the Heart of the System (published in June 2011).  BIS announced on 11 June 2012 that an institution with as few as 1,000 students can, with immediate effect, now become a university, provided at least 750 of them are studying for a degree.  Previously, an institution needed to have at least 4,000 students.  The new smaller size qualification applies to England only; the matter is one for the devolved administrations outside England.  The professed aim is to “stimulate competition” and “widen access to university title [sic] for smaller, high quality providers” (paragraph 1.5 of the response document).  As far as can be discerned, the mechanism is an alteration to the criteria applied by the Privy Council when deciding whether to grant approval under section 39(1) of the 1998 Act.

The broader aim of establishing a “new fit for purpose regulatory framework for the higher education sector” (section 3 of the response document) is not yet the subject of specific legislative proposals because the as yet unknown effects of recent changes in funding arrangements mean that “it cannot be clear what form of regulatory framework will be appropriate” (paragraph 1.7).  An overhaul of the regulatory system is likely but will have to await further detailed consultation and discussion.

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