David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Michael Salmon is News Editor at Wonkhe

With all the issues UK higher education is currently facing, you’d think that changing the name of your provider would be at the bottom of any list of priorities.

So far 2023–24 has seen six declared intentions to change, with every chance of more to follow.

A part of what we are seeing is the comparatively new visibility of the process – since the advent of the Office for Students the smoke-filled rooms of the Privy Council have been replaced by the transparency and publicity that an OfS consultation can afford.

But we also have to ask – why?

Forbidden words

The regulator’s role in provider name changes is one of a whole range of new powers conferred by the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. The best description of the way things currently work can be found in OfS’ own regulatory framework and guidance – somewhat confusingly within the sections devoted to new providers seeking to gain university title.

The word “university” is a protected one – you can change your newly-purchased “flat pack” company name or adopt a trading name that is pretty much anything you like, via a very simple form sent to Companies House, but to include the word “university” (or a whole list of other “sensitive words”) within this name you need to include a letter of support from the Office for Students.

Comparatively few existing providers have taken this route to university title – older universities are named in an Act of Parliament bearing their own name. In these cases the need for Office for Students approval is a new one, but this approval must be granted before the Privy Council can begin the slow work of recommending the amendment of legislation. Of course sometimes the actual legal name of your provider can be quite different to the one in common use – as the Chancellor, Masters and Scholars of the University of Oxford will tell you.

The majority of newer universities are higher education corporations – with the first wave established as such by the 1988 Education Reform Act before gaining university status via the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act. Here, the name of the provider is determined via the direct approval of the Privy Council – and currently an Office for Students recommendation is required in order for the council to act.

“Confusing and misleading”

OfS has a duty to ensure providers avoid names that are, or have the potential to be, confusing or misleading. This could include names that are too similar to the established names of earlier providers, names that imply a geographic status that does not square with reality, or names that imply a provider has a status (including university title) that it does not. The regulator will make the initial judgement on these issues (and may require that the provider in question chooses a more reasonable name), before consulting the public on the name change.

It is not clear what exactly constitutes a name change – so should your provider change the design of a new wordmark or logo as part of a rebrand, or adopt or remove the definitive article, or change the punctuation or order of the words in an existing name this seems generally to be fine. In each of the examples currently or recently in train the question has been about the addition of or changes to words in a name.

Keepers of the list

You would perhaps think that OfS, or maybe HESA, or perhaps DfE, holds the official record of legal names or names in use. In fact, this responsibility lies with the UK Register of Learning Providers (UKRLP) operated by the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA), which keeps the canonical record of names, trading names, and addresses alongside a much more stable identifier: the UK Provider Reference Number, or UKPRN. Strictly speaking, all the other lists of providers out there should draw from this source.

HESA keeps a record of name changes alongside other notable definitional events (address changes, mergers and demergers, changes in responsible regulator(s)) as registered by UKRLP and has done since it was established in 1994. That covers only the major, approved, changes of name – there is no record of the various times your university has added or removed the word “The” here. In HESA’s role as designated data body it is deeply interested in mergers in particular – there is a suite of guidance and support for merging two organisations (and two sets of statutory returns) into one.

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Most users of provider names cleave to the UKRLP names, though there are other informal names that may occasionally be seen – various league tables and research papers might refer to an institution as “King’s” or “KCL” to general comprehension. There is no “official” list of these abbreviations or shortened forms: care needs to be taken to discriminate between BNU (Buckinghamshire New University) and BNU (Birmingham Newman University), or between St Mary’s (university in Twickenham) and St Mary’s (university college in Belfast).

But the most instructive examples of name changes – and, crucially, the reasons behind them – are those currently underway. Let’s take a look.

Bolton: “a misleading provincial name”

It has been a long time coming. The plans for Bolton to apply for a name change to “University of Greater Manchester” had been long trailed – by pure coincidence first appearing in the press around the time of the institution’s Office for Students “boots on the ground” inspection outcome last September.

But just before Easter the OfS opened a consultation for the name change (open until 2 May), including a very thorough explanation from Bolton as to why it wants a rebadging. Here’s an extract:

The University has expanded and changed beyond all recognition in the last 20 years, since its University title was granted when it was much smaller and only had campuses in the town of Bolton. […] Almost 70 per cent of home students at the University are drawn from and live permanently in postcodes across the Greater Manchester (GM) Combined Authority, with only 20 per cent residing in the GM Borough of Bolton itself […] the last three elected Students’ Union Presidents demanding a university title that is instantly recognisable across the world and has the standing and credibility in the employment market […] The current and misleading provincial university name holds back determined efforts by the institution to enhance graduate employment […] a title that is unique, distinctive and appropriate for competing on a level playing field.

A cursory glance at a map would tell you that there are quite a lot of higher educations in and around Manchester, and as you may expect there have been some concerns expressed about the broad geographical scope of the proposed name from these quarters. Bolton clearly has a regional impact – but the same could be said for many other providers, and you don’t hear the likes of the University of Salford complaining about a misleadingly provincial name. It’s an argument that is doubly confusing when you reflect on the sheer amount of investment that the University of Bolton has put into the town it is currently named after.

Solent: “being explicit”

Solent University is currently hoping to become Southampton Solent University. Readers going back over that sentence to check they have parsed it correctly are to be forgiven, as this does indeed represent a reversion to the name it held seven years ago, before the Privy Council approved the shorter version on 11 November 2017. You can respond to the current consultation until 25 April if you so wish.

The university’s justification goes beyond the desire for a return to a simpler time:

Following extensive research with key stakeholders, including current and potential students, the knowledge of the university’s location in Southampton city centre is an important factor in both its collaboration with local and national stakeholders and likely success in future recruitment. The title of Southampton Solent University was previously used between 2005 and 2017. Being explicit regarding our locality in Southampton further aligns our mission as a civic university driving local and regional growth.

The original shift to “Solent” (rather than Southampton Solent) came as the university gained research degree awarding powers and started to think more widely beyond the Southampton region, though annual reports and board minutes from the time do not offer many hints as to the rationale. However, as Mike Ratcliffe noted on X (formerly twitter), the new name was clearly better than the original registered name of “Totaldream Limited”.

UCLan: “little or no current relevance”

The University of Central Lancashire is currently vying to be renamed “University of Lancashire.” If you have strong feelings about this, you’re too late, as the consultation closed on 23 February, though results or a decision have not yet been announced.

The provider argued thus:

The term ‘Central Lancashire’ is a central government construct from the 1980s which is now largely obsolete with little or no current relevance or meaning. Also, given the University now has a significant campus and wider presence in the east of the county and elsewhere, the term is now also both factually inaccurate and misleading. Further, the University is now one of the largest universities in the North-West and Lancashire’s largest provider of graduate-level qualifications. The University is an established civic pillar across the county and an important member of several panLancashire partnerships and works with both public and private sector organisations on various matters affecting the county.

We do know from local press coverage that Lancaster University is opposed to the change, pointing out that its official name is “The University of Lancaster” (a hair’s breadth away) and reasoning that “it would be very confusing to students abroad and in the UK who are seeking us as a high tariff university,” which veers close to suggesting that they would be happy if it was a more prestigious institution.

AECC University College

Another closed consultation awaiting an outcome is AECC University College’s request to change its name to “Health Sciences University”, to accompany its ongoing merger with the University College of Osteopathy.

While this consultation doesn’t give us a direct quote from the principal – OfS looks to have since decided to give institutions a paragraph to have a stab at persuading their audience – there is at least some context, with the main point being that the new name would “better reflect the increased breadth of disciplines across its health sciences provision.”

Needless to say, it feels as if many universities could also claim to be a Health Sciences University – there are certainly enough Faculties of Health Sciences floating about, many of which could claim to offer a wider range of subjects than the AECC/Osteopathy offer.

(Birmingham) Newman University

There’s been one relatively recent consultation on a name change where we’ve had a decision – the (successful) bid by Newman University to change its name to Birmingham Newman University, back in autumn 2022. Within this consultation we did not get any statement from the provider on why it wished to be rechristened, though it has since said that the change “reflects the University’s aim to better identify with the dynamic and ambitious city of Birmingham.”

The consultation attracted 42 responses, and overall OfS ruled in favour:

We took the view that the provider’s proposed new name did not appear to be like any other registered English higher education provider’s name because of similarity that could cause potential confusion or be misleading.

Some respondents (you can guess who) flagged that the use of the initials BNU would be confusing, but OfS was assuaged by Birmingham Newman’s intention to use words rather than letters. We don’t hear of any further objections, for example from other institutions in Birmingham worried about potential confusion (if there were any).

(Lincoln) Bishop (Grosseteste) University

The provider with possibly the most striking name in the sector harks back to a twelfth-century Bishop of Lincoln. Though in his day Robert Grosseteste (sometimes “Robert Greathead”) was quite the big deal in Lincolnshire, a provider with aspirations for a national profile probably needs to be clearer about where it actually is.

Lincoln’s former church teacher training college may soon rejoice in the name of Lincoln Bishop University – marrying geographic location and ecclesiastical history, while avoiding a word that is little understood and even more rarely spelled correctly.

The current Bishop of Lincoln, Stephen Conway – who you might think would be delighted to have a university sort of named after him – is unhappy.

I do regret that this university sees this as a necessity when the title has been so dear to generations of students. There’s a lot to be said for having a very clear identity and the university’s choosing to alter that identity to a degree.

There’s already been local consultation  – with a range of opinions expressed. The next step is a formal proposal and consultation via the Office for Students, expected later this spring.

What can we learn?

The range of suggested respondents to consultations includes, alongside the expected local providers and those with potentially similar names, “local emergency services,” and mission groups.

Higher education providers walk a fine line between a local or regional identity and visibility in the national and international student recruitment marketplace. Universities generally bear the name of the city or town they are based in – and to a much greater extent than you might think the place is a part of the offer made to students. If you are lucky enough to be based in a beautiful cathedral city this manifests in a different way to a location in a declining former industrial area.

Location, in other words, is a part of the sell – and it is notable that most of the changes in train seek to strengthen a desirable association or move away from one seen (for reasons related to changes in the way an area is generally described, or a less attractive location) as detrimental. How the local population might feel about this feels like it may be important.

We should also note that a clear statement of what a provider actually does (think of the growth of “Arts Universities” over the past decade or so) is preferable to a historic name (or agglomeration of historic names). This is particularly true for mergers and strategic shifts, though a name that is too generic generally needs a geographic qualifier. With more mergers on the cards (following Anglia Ruskin University and Writtle, or City and St George’s – and “City St George’s, University of London” does read like a placeholder rather than a decision) there’s only so many descriptors available to go round.

A change of name is unlikely to bring about a change of fortune – we’re into the realm of marginal gains here, which itself speaks powerfully of how desperate some providers are for advantage. This latest wave is unlikely to be a sign of a healthy sector.

4 responses to “What’s in a name?

  1. I have always wondered how the University of the Third Age gets to use the “U” word in its title.

  2. Many of my colleagues in U3As would rather like to be able to lose the word “university” because it is off-putting to many potential members. It would be nice to keep the abbreviation, so suggestions for a suitable word beginning with “u” would be very welcome

  3. Thanks for sharing this. I have been curating these changes and nice to see this builds on the idea of rebranding via the logos. Recently many universities were rebranding and changing their logos, now we see them changing their names. I wish Bolton all thr best on their quest.

  4. I am sorry to loose the honouring of Grosseteste, ‘the real founder of the tradition of scientific thought in medieval Oxford, and in some ways, of the modern English intellectual tradition’, Crombie, A C (1995) The History of Science from Augustine to Galileo, p. 27.

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