Further education institutions across the UK have begun a campaign to ban the term "college" being used by bogus organisations.
A joint letter has been sent to Peter Mandelson, the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Secretary, calling on him to use legislation on company names to protect the reputations of colleges.
If the proposals are adopted, only registered institutions will be able to use the title. The Home Office already adopts a licensing system to identify private colleges operating as visa scams, rejecting a quarter of the 2,100 that accept international students.
Christopher Walden, director of public affairs at the Association of Colleges, said: "It is time the title `college' was protected by law. The activities of bogus colleges are doing much to undermine our excellent and hard-earned reputation."
Colleges are only seeking the same protection as is given to the terms "university" and "institute", he said.
New measures to tackle visa scams involving private colleges came into force at the end of March. Now colleges have to apply for a licence after vetting by the UK Border Agency. Then they have to "sponsor" the applications of students, which means keeping accurate records of attendance and promptly reporting absences of more than 10 days and leavers.
John Denham, the Universities and Skills Secretary, who was also approached by the colleges, said officials would consider whether it was appropriate for the term "college" to be protected. He warned it may not be possible because of the more generalised use of the word.
"There is also an additional risk associated with restricting the term in that agreeing to its use might be perceived as accreditation," he said.