PLANS in England to rebrand a host of small private higher education providers as universities is a threat to the international reputation of institutions in Scotland, a leading official has warned.

Professor Sir Timothy O'Shea, principal of Edinburgh University, said the proposal would lead to universities north of the border promoting themselves as Scottish rather than British to protect their global reputation.

One of the underlying principles of Westminster's Higher Education and Research Bill, which does not apply directly in Scotland, is to make it easier to set up new universities.

Read more: Protest planned at Glasgow School of Art

The UK Government argues the current system, where new providers require ?the backing of an existing institution to become eligible to award degrees, is "highly restrictive" and argue increasing competition will drive up quality.

However, there has been opposition from lecturers' unions who say the move to create more small, private universities will damage quality and increase the pressure on institutions to spend money on cosmetic improvements and marketing rather than front-line delivery.

Sir Timothy, who is also convener of Universities Scotland's research committee, said it was fortunate Scotland was not included in this aspect of the Bill.

But he added: "We are already in the situation where a university in Scotland represents a higher status institution than some of the universities in England.

"In Scotland we are very clear that universities have to have a serious research function, whereas the Bill now makes it possible in England for a small enterprise that has no Phd students and no discernible research function to call itself a university.

"From that regard I guess we will probably be more determined to describe ourselves as Scottish universities rather than as UK universities because there is a much higher bar to jump over in Scotland before you get to call yourself a university."

Read more: Protest planned at Glasgow School of Art

A spokeswoman for Universities Scotland added: "We welcome competition from high quality providers where it provides greater choice for learners.

"However, we have a shared interest, with other UK universities, in making sure that only institutions of proven and sustainable integrity have degree-awarding power or university title.

"Failure to provide sufficient assurances on this would risk the reputation of Scotland’s universities in their partnerships with overseas institutions and recruitment of international students."

Meanwhile, student body NUS Scotland highlighted the impact of a proposal in the legislation to allow universities in England to increase fees if their quality is highly rated under a new system of quality assurance known as the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

The Scottish Government has put forward proposals for institutions here who want to be part of the TEF to join voluntarily.

However, while Scottish universities are already allowed to increase fees to students from the rest of the UK to the level of the highest charged in England, there would be no corresponding assurance on quality, NUS Scotland said.

Its submission to the Scottish Parliament states: "At present, Scottish universities are simply permitted to charge students from the rest of the UK the highest amount that is chargeable elsewhere in the UK, but there is no link to teaching quality.

"Through the ability to charge higher fees as a result of UK Government policy, they see many of the benefits, but with little of the responsibility. We believe that is wholly wrong."

The Universities and Colleges Union also expressed concerns about using the TEF to rate quality for some institutions in Scotland.

Read more: Protest planned at Glasgow School of Art

Its submission states: "We fundamentally oppose the UK government’s plans to link tuition fees to a rating system for university teaching that is outlined in the Bill.

"It is particularly disappointing that the Scottish Government appears to be allowing this system into Scotland by the back door without effective scrutiny and debate."

In a letter to Holyrood's education committee, which is scrutinising the impact of the legislation, Shirley-Anne Somerville, the Higher Education Minister, said it was important the TEF reflected the values of Scottish institutions.

She said: "The Scottish Government is content for Scottish institutions to participate in TEF if that is a choice they wish to make. However, at the same time, I am clear that the current system of quality assurance in Scotland works.

"Although TEF is a UK Government policy, I am satisfied that, so far, Scottish interests have been considered, and the Scottish Government remains content to enable voluntary participation of Scottish institutions should they wish to participate."

She said the higher education sector in Scotland was keen for TEF to recognise the differences in the Scottish system adding: "The Scottish Government is supportive of this view and I will be happy to work with the UK Government to determine how this might be achieved in practice."