Universities have increased student numbers by allowing others such as FE colleges, industry, the professions and overseas organisations to run part or all of a degree course locally for them.
But many are failing to keep the required check on standards, says the Higher Education Quality Council in a report this week. There is a "clear risk" that degree and other higher education courses they offer in collaboration with outside bodies will be seen as "second best", it says.
The council believes "associated college" can imply a status of a mature institution working in partnership to award its own degrees - much as the polytechnics did with the old Council for National Academic Awards.
Action is to be taken jointly by both the funding councils for further and higher education to protect students by tightening up on the use of the titles.
Dr Roger Brown, chief executive of the Higher Education Quality Council, told The TES: "At best, collaborative arrangements offer a great deal to students and staff. The point of our report is that they need to be underpinned by some quality assurance arrangement which is at least as sound as for a university's own courses, otherwise the courses will get a bad name. All we are doing is drawing attention to the pitfalls and giving a cautionary note."
College principals said that if there was abuse, then the universities were substantially to blame. One spoke of a new university "blackmailing" them into taking associated status to ensure good progression routes for students. Another said: "We have come in for a lot of arm-twisting."
Dr Brown said it cut both ways. "There are considerable advantages in being able to tell a student they could stay on at the college and yet progress to an HNC or degree from a particular university." Some colleges had extensive links. The Wirral Metropolitan College was associated with 18 universities.
And it was not just a problem with the new universities. The older ones were equally trying to set up associated college arrangements in their catchment areas.
The HEQC also found links with industry and overseas bodies lacking. For example, one proposal from the University of Wolverhampton provided validation for a UK-based "speculative, educational enterprise providing independent studies". But the auditors have expressed "serious concern" over the lack of academic support available to students.
In another proposal, the university was setting up collaborative links with an overseas institution which, it turned out, "had no power under national law to confer an award at the level to which the agreement related".
For further information and copies of the report Learning From Collaborative Audit, contact Orders Assistant, UCAS, Fulton House, Jessop Avenue, Cheltenham, Glos GL50 3SH. Tel 01242 225941.