If you want to set up a business with the word "apothecary" in its title, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills will want to know that you have the blessing of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries. The public is protected from bogus apothecaries, as it is from businesses with names that misleadingly suggest connections with royalty, aristocracy, the Government or charitable status.
In education, the words "institute", "institution", "polytechnic", "special school" and "university" are among the collection of almost 100 words that Companies House will not accept in new or changed business names without the consent of the Secretary of State, sometimes after referral to other bodies or government departments. But under the legislation, soon to be re-enacted under the Companies Act 2006, "college" is not restricted and can be adopted by anyone.
It is hard to disagree with the Association of College's (AoC) campaign to add "college" to the Companies Act list of restricted names, which has been backed by the Commons Home Affairs Committee and an early day motion signed by 111 MPs. Kevin Brennan, FE minister, told the committee that the protection of the word "university" but not "college" seemed illogical.
The committee recognised the damage done by sub-standard education provided by bogus colleges, as well as immigration scams. It welcomed the reduced number of establishments now accredited by Ofsted, or the five other accreditation agencies, sponsoring students seeking visas, compared with those on the discredited former register of education providers.
Although the number of institutions bringing in students from outside Europe has been slashed, bogus or sub-standard colleges are still free to continue to recruit home or other European students. The question is whether the Companies Act regime for restricting the use of "college" would go far enough.
It would not apply retrospectively; as the AoC's evidence to the committee recognised, the best that could be hoped for would be a long-term impact slowly to reduce the number of organisations calling themselves colleges.
The Home Affairs Committee called for an inspection regime as a more complete means of preventing abuse. To stop the bogus just calling themselves schools instead, that title would also have to be restricted. The registration regime for independent schools applies only to those whose pupils are of compulsory school age; so too does the new system for monitoring "independent educational institutions" teaching part-time pupils.
The Privy Council, which must be consulted under the Companies Act on use of the name university, also uses powers in different and more specific legislation to deal with the suppression of ersatz universities and unrecognised degrees. Problems here can be caused by the well intentioned as well as the bogus.
It is ironic that the campaign to restrict the designation of colleges coincides with the introduction of public-expenditure cuts and the announcement of Tory plans for scrapping education quangos. Until 1982, the then Department of Education and Science operated a voluntary accreditation scheme for private colleges, which included monitoring their quality of provision and efficiency. It was abolished as part of the Thatcher cuts on grounds of cost and in the interests of greater self- regulation by the private sector.
- Paul Pharaoh, Partner (education team), Martineau.