The race to create Birmingham's fourth university hotted up yesterday after another of the city's colleges gained degree-awarding powers.

The status means Birmingham College of Food, Tourism and Creative Studies can call itself a "university college" - a short step away from a full-blown university.

A rebranding and name change to University College Birmingham (UCB) accompanied the new designation.

Last autumn Newman College in Bartley Green was also granted university college status and pledged it would be the city's fourth university.

However, UCB's principal, Eddie McIntyre, claimed his institution would make the grade first, adding he expected it to happen within two years.

"You are only a university if you get approval from the Secretary of State," he said.

"The criteria is you have to have degree-awarding powers which we have and you have to have 4,000 or more higher education students doing degree courses.

"We have 3,500 - there will now be a push to get us over the 4,000. The next stage is to get an extra 500 students and then make an application to the Secretary of State to become Birmingham's fourth full-blown university."

Mr McIntyre added UCB's capacity to expand student numbers had been boosted following a £7.5 million deal to secure a new two-acre site.

The area on George Street in the Jewellery Quarter is a short way from the college's existing city central site in Summer Row.

"The existing site is full to capacity but this gives us considerable opportunity to expand," said Mr McIntyre.

"It is a real possibility now to get these 500 students. When we do we will put in an application to the Secretary of State to become a university."

UCB has built up a strong reputation for vocational courses, with its food and catering options particularly praised.

Although it has 8,300 students, more than half do not study at higher education level.

Last September, Newman College was granted the power to award degrees rather than having to link with another more established institution because of the strength of its courses.

The centre, which specialises in teacher training, currently has 3,000 students studying at degree level, though numbers are growing.

Announcing the new status, Newman College's principal Pamela Taylor said: "We would be delighted to be Birmingham's fourth university. It is something we will continue to work towards. At the moment we are in a position where demand for places outstrips provision."

A £15 million refurbishment programme has started at Newman which is set to transform the site, boosting its capacity to expand.

Birmingham's higher education sector is going through rapid transformation as part of a bid to rebrand it as a knowledge capital.

A couple of years ago Birmingham University spent more than £100,000 on its new image. Aston University spent £65,000 on a new logo and the University of Central England forked out £200,000 to change its name to Birmingham City University to more closely reflect its geographical location.

The College of Food's name change is also designed to underline its association with Birmingham.

Next month, Marketing Birmingham plans to launch a campaign backed by all the city's universities and the council to rebrand Birmingham as a university city to rival the great academic centres of the world.

Mr McIntyre said: "It is good for the city. It is very important to see Birmingham as a university city because it also brings in a large number of overseas students which is very good for the economy."

The student population has grown more than eight-fold in the last 25 years and Ofsted judged the institution "outstanding" in 2004 for its educational provision.