A University by any other name...

On 27 February, without much fanfare, BIS published its consultation into Company and Business Names as part of its Red Tape Challenge. The consultation solicits views on whether all regulations relating to company names should be repealed, or whether they should be reduced. So far, nothing very much for the HE enthusiast to get excited about, one might think.  Except for the fact that one of the regulated names under consideration is “university”.

Currently, an application to register a company name that includes the word “university” will be considered by the Secretary of State. The consultation describes the only criterion that the Secretary of State will consider is whether the applicant has degree-awarding powers, which is interesting, as degree-awarding powers do not in other circumstances of themselves confer the right to be called a university, although they may confer the right to apply to be called a “university college”.

Traditionally, Privy Council approval has been needed to use either the name “university” or “university college”.  Guidelines as to what institutions must demonstrate to secure this approval and the process for inspecting and assessing suitability to use these titles is published and clear.

However, we have seen the development of a parallel route to these titles through the registration of names at Companies House. This route was adopted by both BPP University College Limited and the University of Law Limited in preference to the Privy Council route. In these cases, there was no need to seek approval to use the title, rather the Secretary of State was required simply to confirm he had no objections. There appears to be no published guidance for the award of university title via this route. If (as the consultation states) the only qualification against which he considered whether to object was whether or not the applicant company had degree-awarding powers, then the decision not to object must have been pretty straightforward.  If the Secretary of State took any other, undisclosed, criteria into account, then the process lacks transparency and is concerning for that reason also.  

The current Minister for Universities and Science has been reported as being keen to see more universities, once claiming that it should be possible to "just rent an office block and say you could study here for five key vocational qualifications" and this streamlined route to the grant of university title certainly facilitates this vision.

Now the public and business community at large are being asked whether even this more limited supervision of university title should be repealed or reduced. True, the consultation recognises that there is a high degree of risk to the public if the title is misused, but it nevertheless solicits views on the possibility of reduced protection of the word. Perhaps BIS are assuming that the response in support of continued control will be so overwhelming that no change will be needed. However, we have to assume that they are genuinely willing to contemplate repeal or reduction of the control, otherwise why include the option in the consultation?

The vision of a world in which use of the word “university” is unregulated is to my mind as close to truly terrifying as a topic that relates to nomenclature can get. One only has to look the (unregulated) “college” designation to see how it can be misused by unscrupulous businesses to (unjustifiably) denote credibility and integrity. The resultant damage to the public’s perception of and confidence in colleges as a whole is something that the FE sector has bemoaned for many years, and something which the Government pledged to review in its strategic vision document for FE, New Challenges, New Chances: “We will review ways of protecting the terminology and titles in relation to FE Colleges to maintain the high reputation of the FE sector”. Ironic, then, that they are consulting on doing the exact opposite in HE.

The consultation ends on 22 May 2013 and I really hope there will be a strong and unified response to this proposal from the sector and indeed from anyone who believes that university title should be protected. I know that I will be submitting one, assuming that I can stay off my soapbox for long enough!


Thanks to Nick Hillman on Twitter who referred me to guidance that has recently been published on applying for university and university college title via the business and company names route. The guidance, together with an interesting account of HEFCE’s perspective and reservations on its operation, can be found here.

Smita Jamdar
Partner and Head of Education
For and on behalf of SGH Martineau LLP
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