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On 21 August 2007, the Taxpayers’ Alliance produced a report that

“compiled Britain’s first ever list of university ‘non-courses’;  university degrees that lend the respectability of scholarly qualifications to non-academic subjects and calculated their annual cost to students and taxpayers.”

In this they list 400 degree course, at 91 institutions in the UK, which they describe as “non-courses”. They claim that these courses cost the taxpayer £40 million per year.

At the top of their list they place a BA (Hons) degree in Outdoor Adventure and Philosophy, at Marjon College in Plymouth. They include also in their list 60 different courses in alternative medicine.

I don’t agree entirely with the Alliance. They fail, I think, to make a vital distinction, between things that are untrue, and things that a merely not a great intellectual challenge. In “Science degrees in anti-science” I said

“What matters here is that degrees in things such as golf-course management are honest. They do what it says on the label. That is quite different from awarding BSc degrees in subjects that are not science at all, but are positively anti-science.”

Nevertheless the 400 “non-courses” include 60 in alternative medicine, and they are quite unacceptable.

So how does Universities UK (UUK) react? (They are the folks who used to have the sensibly self-explanatory title “Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals”, before they had their Consignia moment). Nothing short of a blanket defence, according to the BBC News

But Universities UK said the alliance had failed to understand developments in higher education or the labour market.

“Had they done a little more research, they would have found that these so-called ‘non-courses’ are in fact based on demand from employers and developed in association with them,”

“Graduates on these courses are in demand from employers who are looking for people with specific skills alongside the general skills acquired during a degree such as critical thinking, team-working, time management and IT skills – a point lost on the authors of this rag-bag of prehudices and outdated assumptions.”

All courses were checked rigorously to ensure they met appropriate standards. “This is academic snobbery, as predictable as it is unfounded.”

Does UUK really think that that is a sufficient justification for BSc degrees in homeopathy?

Does UUK really think that degrees in homeopathy teach “critical thinking”?

Does UUK really think that “rigorous checking” of a degree in homeopathy is possible?

If so, the endarkenment has certainly reached high places.

Postcript

An email from the president of UUK, Rick Trainor says that

“. . . degree courses change over time, are independently assessed for academic rigour and quality and provide a wider education than the simple description of the course might suggest”

Professor Trainor, Principal of King’s College London, is a social historian, not a scientist. But you don’t have to be a scientist to understand that it is simply preposterous to think that the smaller the dose the bigger the effect. The defence of such ideas on the basis that they have been “independently assessed for academic rigour” (assessed, of course, by fellow believers in magic) is equally preposterous.

SO I wrote again to explain the difference between honest and dishonest vocational degrees. It reall isn’t very difficult to grasp. This time all I got was

Dear David

Thank you very much for your comments, which I have read with interest.

Best wishes

Rick Trainor

UUK, like the Taxpayers’ Alliance, has failed totally to make the distinction betweeen honest vocational degrees and dishonest degrees.The attitude of UUK appears to be that of an old-fashioned trade union -defend your members, right or wrong. It is time they grasped the nettle.

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