University or university centre?

Mike Ratcliffe celebrates the growing number of university centres, and finds out how providers get to use the word "university" in their name

Mike Ratcliffe is a higher education historian and career academic administrator

University title matters. Protecting it is an important part of what David Watson called the “controlled reputational range”.

We’ve had various systems to consider who it might be awarded, at first through royal charters and since 1992 through simpler processes, at first run by the Privy Council and now, in England, through the OfS.

The new new universities

As has already been established, 1992 is the only truly memorable date in the history of English Higher Education policy. The granting of university title to polytechnics (and two colleges) still rankles some people. In the legislation, the process was simple; the Privy Council was given the power to grant the title and off the sector went. Looking back 30 years, you might think this was a “big bang”, but actually the process of the confirmation of titles proceeded cautiously over several months as new names were weighed and consulted on.

What didn’t exist was a process for colleges who hadn’t met the original criteria intended in the White Paper. It was unclear what the rules were. One of the recommendations of the Dearing Report (from 25 years ago) was there should be criteria and then a process of application – which would be run by a sector owned body, the new QAA, and be a peer review process. The criteria were set by government and they have continued to be refined since. The wave after the 1992 act came within a year, the new wave, using these criteria, has continued ever since. These “new new” universities (let’s call them the Dearing universities) outnumber the other tranches.

Tag line tag

While the colleges were waiting for Dearing, there was a certain amount of experimentation with forms of words in tag lines – colleges said that they were in the “university sector” or even added “university college” to their name. So there were explicit criteria added for university colleges, and rules announced for the use of the word “university”. These were repeated when the Companies House route to university title was added. The sector has noted some odd usages, some of which had had explicit government approval, so it was really welcome when in January 2021 the DfE updated its guidelines, making this all clear.

The guidelines acknowledge the routes to University and University College title, but also set out rules for overseas universities to use their home title when operating in England and for a group of institutions that were using “university centre” or “university campus” in their company or trading name.

What’s a “university centre”?

University Centres are great – I’m mystified that they are not an explicit part of government strategies. The 2021 guidelines set out explicit guidelines; there’s now a set of things a college would normally have to do to get the title confirmed by DfE. These are:

For the use of university campus or university centre applications would normally be expected to be from a:

  • constituent campus or centre which forms part of an existing, and OfS registered university
  • registered higher education provider as part of a venture by an OfS registered university or universities to deliver higher education in a separate campus or centre rather than at the universities themselves – this would normally be aimed at making the universities’ programmes available to students in the students’ local area

For the use of university centre only, you will be expected to be a registered higher education provider delivering higher education course including some provision being awarded through partnership with a university or universities, with support for the use of the term from the universities concerned.

One of the issues that has puzzled me is that OfS don’t really capture “university centres” on the register, sometimes not recording the trading name, and infrequently noting that approval has been given for ‘university’ to be used as part of a trading name.

We’ve got the list

As there’s a bit of a gap in the formal acknowledgement of the granting of the use of “university” in a title by DfE, I asked for a list of all the approvals they’ve made since January 2021. They have issued 43 letters of non-objection to the use of the word university in a company or brand name since 1 January 2021. 17 of these were to university centres – with a selection of other parts of universities, schools linked to universities and six student unions. Excitingly, DfE confirms that it has declined to issue a non-objection letter to 29 individuals since 1 January 2021.

Here are the centres that DfE has given approval since publishing the new rules. Many of these were operating as university centres before 2021, but must have taken the opportunity to get confirmation. There are more university centres operating – I counted 52 last year – but they may already have had a non-objection letter. 16 of the centres that DfE has approved are on the register.

  • University Centre Oldham
  • New college Durham University Centre
  • University Centre WISE
  • University Centre Truro and Penwith
  • University Centre Isle of Wight
  • University Campus Doncaster
  • Warwickshire College and University Centre
  • University Studies at West Suffolk College
  • University Centre Middlesborough
  • Preston College University Centre
  • University Centre Basingstoke
  • University Centre Farnborough
  • The Bedford College Group University Centre, Bedford College University Centre, Tresham College University Centre and Shuttleworth College University Centre
  • City of Oxford College and University Centre; Reading College and University Centre; Merrist Wood College and University Centre
  • University Centre Leeds
  • Leeds College of Building University Centre
  • Cornwall College University Centre

An issue with the register?

The web version of the OfS register is still in beta mode, but I’ve spotted a problem with trading names, particularly with further education colleges. For example, Activate Learning has no trading names listed, so the City of Oxford, Reading and Merrist Wood colleges not appear in the register’s search function. This is accentuated further here as only two of the colleges, New College Durham University Centre and University Centre Leeds, have their approved university centre name on the OfS register. All of the 16 colleges on the register who have been given a non-objection letter by DfE since 2021 are listed as “The provider does not have the right to use ‘university’ in its name” on the register.

The register’s rubric says:

The OfS Register shows if a registered higher education provider’s use of a specific name or names, including the word ‘university’, has been approved by Companies House under the provisions of the Companies Act 2006. If this was granted by obtaining a non-objection letter from the Department for Education the Register makes this clear.

At present, the OfS Register does not make this clear.

I think we should celebrate university centres more. In many places they are just the things that government is looking for for levelling up, and in many places they are getting capital grants to support that. Often, however, policy makers can be caught calling for universities in places like Doncaster or Oldham but nobody knows that DfE have given their official stamp of non-objection to university centres in these very towns. Sadly, it looks like OfS doesn’t know that DfE has given their official stamp of non-objection either. Surely there should be a list published somewhere (rather than having to submit FOIs to get the names).

Once we’ve celebrated the university centres, I will get back to worrying about three things: how did the Isle of Wight College get to have a University Centre when it’s not on the OfS register; who were the 29 places that were refused a non-objection letter; and is either DfE or OfS triangulating those places without permission who are using university in their titles?

3 responses to “University or university centre?

  1. Middlesbrough. I’m not normally pedantic but this article is about names, so better to get the spelling right.

  2. Thanks

    The table comes straight from the DfE – I didn’t go though and spellcheck it (although I did expand the listing for the Bedford Group as it didn’t give all the names that they’d agreed in their letter).

  3. Just read these comments,after enjoying reading your interesting article Mike. Caused me to chuckle: Love the fact that, despite the wonderfully spurious ‘levelling-up’ agenda is espoused by DFE/OfS, etc., the former can’t even be bothered to get the spelling right for Middlesbrough. Perhaps, they might be worried about having nose-bleeds, if visiting?

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