Truth, falsehood and evidence: investigations of dubious and dishonest science

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Dame Jo Williams

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We live under a highly ideological government. It wishes to privatise everything in sight, not least universities and the National Health Service. Of course they don’t put it that way: they call it “reform”. It’s easier to deal with open ideology than with ideology disguised as social reform, but luckily a 10-year old could see through the weasel words.

One example is the raising of tuition fees to £9,000 pa. It costs the taxpayers more than charging £3,000 did. Students obviously lose, and universities probably lose too. It takes a very blind form of ideology to devise a system in which all three parties lose money, for the sake of a principle.

No doubt Education Minister David Willetts was moved by the same ideological considerations to grant "BPP University" the status of University College in 2010 (three years after it was given degree-awarding powers). BPP became part of the international education giant for-profit Apollo Group last year. It is the first private institution to be awarded the title since the University College at Buckingham – now the University of Buckingham

It did not seem to worry Willetts that Apollo has a rather dodgy reputation. Apollo had an appeal for a conviction for securities fraud turned down in 2011. The company was found to have withheld a critical report from the US Department for Education from its shareholders. It has already paid around £8m to the government and is due to reimburse its investors around £130m. Apollo’s chief executive  Charles Edelstein, is paid $6m (including bonuses and share options). That makes UCL’ provost’s salary of £400,000 look like poverty.. See also BPP’s parent company ‘deceives’ prospective students, in the Solicitor’s Journal.

In the UK the activities of BPP will be regulated by the QAA. That’s a bad sign too. The QAA has failed totally to prevent degrees in rubbish being awarded in UK universities. It is a totally ineffective box-ticking quango that costs a lot of money but id doesn’t ensure quality. On the contrary. the QAA actually harms quality by endorsing some terrible courses. For example, it endorsed the Malaysian business school as recounted in a BBC Wales television programme A young reporter has better investigative ability than Willetts, the government and the QAA. See the programme on YouTube: (Part 1, and Part 2 ).

The QAA, also endorses private courses at the McTimoney Chiropractic College, which is owned by, guess who, BPP. This college awards degrees that are accredited by the University of Wales, an institution that accredits just about anything if paid a large fee (and will probably vanish soon). This is something I revealed in 2008. See Another worthless validation: the University of Wales and nutritional therapy. Also the follow up posts,

The McTimoney Chiropractic Association would seem to believe that chiropractic is “bogus” in 2009, and, especially,

Scandal of the University of Wales and the Quality Assurance Agency (2010).

The story has now appeared in Private Eye, in the Education Round-up section. That section doesn’t appear on their web site, but since I was able to help them a bit with the story, i hope they won’t mind if I reproduce it here.

Pet subjects

If for-profit law and business school BPP wants to avoid questions about the legitimacy of the courses it offers, what is it doing offering courses in chiropractic treatment for… pets?

The question arises as calls are growing for better regulation of the· for-profit higher education sector as a whole.

This month, for example, the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) think tank landed a further blow against the government’s wish to bring in more private universities, law schools, bible colleges and business schools, with a damning report which drew further attention to the "questionable legitimacy or very poor quality" of for-profit education in the United States. Two US firms, Apollo Group (which owns BPP College) and Kaplan, were lambasted following an investigation by the US Government Accountability Office; yet both are already involved in UK private education and looking to expand rapidly (see Eyes 1272 & 1275).

Last month Betty Huff, president of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, told a conference of university chiefs in Nottingham about problems caused by the rapid expansion of private providers in the US, citing one nursing college in California which had charged $60,000 for courses which left graduates unqualified for nursing work.

Despite these concerns, when universities minister David Willetts recently doubled the student loans available to those attending private institutions, he said he wanted "to encourage a more open, dynamic and diverse higher education system, with new alternative providers".

BPP College, Britain’s second for-profit degree-awarding university, operates law and business schools in eight English cities, as well as the McTimoney College of Chiropractic in Abingdon, Oxfordshire.

Despite BPP’s degree-awarding powers, McTimoney’s degrees are currently validated by the University of Wales, which notoriously validated degrees from Malaysia’s Fazley Business School, whose former pop star boss claimed qualifications from a sham business school, and Danish and American evangelical institutions, against the advice of the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency (Eye 1282).

If the scientific evidence for many of chiropractic’s claims in human medicine is feeble, good studies supporting veterinary chiropractic are non-existent. Nevertheless the college has devised two-year MSc courses in chiropractic for small animals and in animal manipulation -"currently unique in Europe, in that It is the only externally validated Masters level course that trains students in Animal Manipulation."

Is that the kind of alternative provider Willetts really wants to encourage

Follow-up

The University of Wales continues to engage in make-believe, despite all the criticism. Just after this post gone public I noticed Bursary fulfils dreams for students of McTimoney College of Chiropractic. They haven’t noticed that the University of Wales accreditation procedures are utterly discredited and that chiropractic has imploded in the wake of the Simon Singh affair.

More on Apollo. A devastating essay on BPP, by Howard Hotson, has appeared in the London Review of Books. Of the parent company, Apollo, Hotson writes

“In 2006 the company’s controller and chief accounting officer resigned amid allegations that the books had been cooked; in 2007, the Nasdaq Listing and Hearing Review Council threatened to withdraw Apollo’s listing from the stock exchange; in 2008, a US federal jury in Arizona found Apollo guilty of ‘knowingly and recklessly’ misleading investors, and instructed the group to pay shareholders some $280 million in reparations. Apollo appealed, but the appeal was rejected by the US Supreme Court on 8 March this year.”

If David Willetts did not know about this, he should have done. If he did know about it, he must be a far-right idealogue beyond comprehension.

The Economist cites Private Eye and this blog in Badmouthing BPP. It concludes that

It seems unlikely that the government would do anything as drastic as withdrawing BPP’s degree-awarding powers. But for a business school, reputation counts. It will hope the murmurs die out quickly.

That seems to me to let them off the hook much too easily.

Daily Mirror (1 June) reports Secret government talks with US private education firms sparks fears of uni privatisations.

An analogy with abuse at Winterbourne View?. Shortly after this news, the BBC’s Panorama programme revealed shocking abuse of patients with learning difficulties at a care home. The ‘care home;’ is owned by a private company, Castlebeck. The company charges the taxpayer arounf £3,500 per week. Care homes have their own box-ticking quango, the Care Quality Commission (CQC), with a very-respectable-sounding chair, Dame Jo Williams. The CQC failed to respond to a whistleblowers report. They seem to be as useless as the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) for universities. These expensive regulators are not just ineffective, but do positive harm, by endorsing nonsense. They tick boxes, but they don’t use their brains and above all, they don’t look properly. Complaining to them will generally get you absolutely nowhere. Their somnolent members prefer the quiet life it seems. Andrew Lansely wants more private companies like Castlebeck in the NHS, just as David Willetts wants more people like "BPP University".in the education system. I don’t.

In the NHS, alarming cases like this have not always occurred in the private sector, As far as I know there are no numbers. It can’t help that both BPP’s and Castlebeck’s aim is to make money.

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