The term 'university' is not a defined legal term and so can generally be interpreted in accordance with its natural meaning. What constitutes a university was discussed in the case of St David’s College Lampeter v Minister for Education  1 All ER. The court had to decide whether St David’s College (now the University of Wales, Trinity St David) was a university. The judge acknowledged that the word university was not easy to define and noted that, although St David’s College possessed most of the qualities of a university it had never called itself a university and it had (at the time) a very limited power to grant degrees, which was considered a key issue. Consequently the court held that “Judging the matter both on broad principles and on the narrow principles of its limited powers and the absence of any express intention of making it a university by the sovereign power, I think that the plaintiffs have not discharged the onus of satisfying me that the college ought to be called and to be considered, in accordance with the proper meaning of the English language, a university”.
Section 90(3) of FHEA 1992 states that, for the purposes of that Act, 'university' is to be read as including “a university college and any college, or institution in the nature of a college, in a university”.
The name 'university' has some protection under statute and an organisation must meet certain requirements before it can call itself a university. The Companies Act 2006 provides that a company or business cannot use the word 'university' in its name unless it has the consent of the Secretary of State to do so. Additionally, section 77 of FHEA 1992 and section 39 of the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998 provide that the consent of the Privy Council is to be obtained before 'university' can be included in the name of an educational institution within the further or higher education sectors.
Prior to 1992, most universities were established by Royal Charter granted through the Privy Council and these are known as chartered corporations. Their governance structures are laid down in the institution’s charter and statutes. The charter grants power to the corporation and sets out its main objectives. The statutes set out the basic governance framework and the powers of certain office-holders. Aberystwyth University is an example of this type of university in Wales.
Post-1992 universities are generally established as ‘higher education corporations’ or are ‘designated institutions’ (see below) . They operate under Instruments and Articles of Government as approved by the Privy Council. Cardiff Metropolitan University is an example of a higher education corporation in Wales.