What is a university? This feels like a rather academic question, and indeed I did an essay on a fairly similar topic during my Masters. However, as I reflect on the recent Government Green Paper proposals surrounding university title and try and pin down my idea for what it means to be a university it isn’t as easy as it may sound.

The regulations in England give an institution the right to seek University title if they meet a number of broad criteria:

  • they must have been granted powers to award taught degrees
  • they meet the principles of good governance relevant to its sector
  • they also must normally have at least 1,000 full time equivalent higher education students. At least 750 of these students should be registered on degree courses (including foundation degree programmes).
  • The number of full time equivalent higher education students must exceed 55 per cent of the total number of full time equivalent students

But these don’t quite get to the heart of what it is to be a University.

Linking DAP and University title?

At the moment all Universities are degree-awarding bodies but not all degree-awarding bodies are universities. The proposals in the Green Paper suggest aligning these two processes much more closely together. In terms of having passed a rigorous process demonstrating not just quality of education but also the financial sustainability and robust leadership and management this seems like a logical step. This would also prevent the slightly bizarre situation of an institution applying for TDAP and then having to submit another application for University/University College title. However it is worth thinking through any unintended consequences.

At the recent conference I was chairing on Successfully entering the higher education market for Westminster Briefing there were a number of delegates from FE Colleges thinking seriously about becoming Higher Education Providers, probably in part due to the perturbations in the FE sector with Area Reviews but does highlight an interesting anomaly.

One delegate from a college mentioned that they had more than 1,000 FTE higher education students, and so would be above the current threshold for university title, but is ruled out by the provision that at least 55% of the students should be studying at higher education level. This prompts the question about why a college in the future with 50 higher education students could become a university, whereas another institution with over 1,000 higher education students can’t – or at least not without creating some kind of umbrella organisational structure with separate institutions for their HE and FE students. If the TDAP and University-title processes are too closely aligned this could potentially create an anomaly whereby FE colleges with significant HE provision couldn’t apply for TDAP without having more HE students than FE students.

How many students do you need to be a university?

This then brings me on to the question of how many students do you need to be a University. In England this has changed as recently as 2012 when the number of students a university is expected to have was reduced from 4,000 to 1,000. But even this figure feels arbitrary. Is there anything more University-like about having 1,000 students rather than 900, 800 or indeed 500?

One of the consequences of this reduction from 4,000 to 1,000 was that it implicitly moved away from the idea that to be a university an institution had to teach a wide range of subjects. When the threshold was reduced to 1,000 students it meant that institutions which were fairly specialised were able to become universities. Given the quality of these institutions it felt like the right decision, and the way in which these institutions have developed, even in the last couple of years, has shown that this was the right decision.

However, I am on the Board of a small institution that was recently awarded Taught Degree-Awarding Powers but because it only has about 600 FTE has to apply for University College title rather than University title, but in all regards other than student numbers feels very much like a good small university. This doesn’t quite feel within the spirit for the earlier changes and there is a strong case to be made that this rather arbitrary figure of 1,000 students be reduced.

Academic Community

When looking around at definitions for being a university for this piece I found a reference to the word “university” being derived from the Latin universitas magistrorum et scholarium, which roughly means “community of teachers and scholars”.

It would be tempting at this point to revisit the question of an explicit link between both teaching and research when thinking about defining a university, although given that changed over a decade ago following the 2003 White Paper it probably wouldn’t be helpful. However, the criteria could refer to a broader notion of the ethos of a university with strong linkages between teaching being informed by cutting-edge research, scholarship or practice.

Thinking about this definition, maybe rather than looking at the teaching and research link it is more important to consider the word “community”. In the BIS Green Paper there is a proposal to remove the link to student numbers entirely, so that the prospect of a University with 50 students could become a reality. The idea that an institution of 50 students become a university does make me a little bit nervous, not because I think the student experience wouldn’t be as good, nor that students couldn’t learn as much, but there feels something more unstable in an institution where a couple of staff leaving could result in a whole course, department or institution becoming unviable. So rather than removing the student number link entirely there could be some kind of criteria more closely to the size of the academic community and the notion of the sustainability of the institution and its ability to continue functioning if several staff leave.


In conclusion, when thinking about university title we could align this more closely to Taught Degree-Awarding Powers but not make this link so prescriptive as to prevent institutions applying for TDAP. We should reduce the arbitrary figure of a university consisting of 1,000 students but rather than pluck a figure from the air this should be linked to the sustainability of the academic provision which could reflect staff and student numbers. This could all be set against a wider notion of an innovative academic community in which teaching is informed by cutting-edge research, scholarship or practice.