In last June’s Higher Education white paper (yes it really was that long ago), BIS declared their intention to reduce the qualifying threshold for university title from 4,000 to 1,000 students. All the other qualifying criteria – notably the need to hold degree awarding powers – would remain intact. Those institutions that might benefit from such a change made headlines when the precise proposals and criteria were published in the subsequent technical consultation in August 2011.

They include the Royal Agricultural College and Harper Adams – university colleges in the land based sector, Falmouth, Norwich and Bournemouth University College of the Arts and also Newman, Bishop Grosseteste, St Mary’s and Marjon university colleges in Birmingham, Lincoln, Twickenham and Plymouth. In all of these places and in the specific sectors they serve, these are familiar institutions that are both well-known and highly valued. Collectively they have been around for over 1,000 years – with most founded during the 19th century. ‘New’ universities they might become but ‘new’ institutions they most certainly are not.

There are universities in the UK with less than 4,000 – Buckingham has around 1000 students – and many more grew slowly and organically after being initially established. The ‘Robbins’ universities such as UEA, York and Warwick all developed and expanded steadily from the 1960s and were far below 4,000 students for many years as they gradually became more established as academic institutions. Both Leeds Trinity and Newman University Colleges were founded at a similar time.

And while the term university offers clarity, there is growing confusion about what a university college is – both within and beyond the UK. This is not a protected title and it’s becoming increasingly muddied as policy allows more and more institutions to use it. In recent years we have seen the growth of University Technical Colleges as well as university centres and campuses. In Coventry we now see a University College developed and marketed as a low cost, ‘no frills’ institution. That’s fine but it’s not what many existing university colleges are trying to do.

Of course there are many specialist universities in the UK already – in economics, in engineering, in teacher training and in the arts. So this is not an issue of breadth where a ‘monotechnic’ is somehow less desirable than a ‘polytechnic’ or a multi faculty institution. The question that really matters here is that between diversity and homogeneity at a whole sector level. What matters most is quality and choice across the whole HE system not within every institution. For ministers in both the Labour and Coalition Governments, the drivers of competition, choice and diversity have been fundamental to reforms and equally important in agendas such as schools and welfare. Far worse for everyone is the perverse incentive to grow both subjects and numbers in order to meet an arbitrary level and threatening financial stability or quality in the process.

Internationally the case is straightforward. There are many outstanding universities with less than 4,000 students – most are specialists such as Tokyo’s University of the Arts (2,000 students) or ZHdK in Zurich with 2500 students – others focus on education and the liberal arts including many in Canada and the United States – where smaller universities are described as ‘potted ivy’ institutions. South Korea’s Pohang University of Science and Technology has recently been ranked the world’s best university under the age of 50 and it has less than 3,000 students. The title university college is as difficult to explain internationally as it is in England. In both contexts, the lack of full university title is constraining and confusing to partners, applicants and governments alike.

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, this issue matters for students too. You won’t find many students or recent graduates who describe their studies at anything other than ‘uni’. Admissions criteria are high and courses extremely demanding. But describing a university college and the value of its degree is more difficult than it should be especially when applying for jobs – with many employers just as confused by the title as parents before them.

However, we know that once over this barrier, graduate employment tends to be stronger in specialist institutions. Six of the university colleges are in the top 25 for graduate employability and most are above the 90% level. Teaching quality tells a similar (and not unconnected) story with smaller cohorts, more contact and highly personalised classes and tutorials.

So as in many other arguments this is about a level playing field. Quality, reputation and brand are increasingly vital to institutions and to the UK as a whole and it’s in no one’s interest to let any slip. But to continue to do so we should recognise and value excellence and enable diversity and specialism to flourish. That is precisely what ministers are considering and it’s in everyone’s interest.

Andy Westwood – CEO