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Michael Harloe

Congratulations to the vice-chancellor of the University of Salford, Michael Harloe.

Times Higher Education announced on 15th January 2009 Salford to shut complementary medicine BSc.

“The University of Salford is to stop offering undergraduate degrees in acupuncture and complementary medicine because they are no longer considered “a sound academic fit”.”

This is the first time that a University has decided to stop teaching quackery altogether.  The university’s press officer told me (22 January 2009)

“all the University’s programmes associated with complementary medicine within the School of Community, Health Sciences & Social Care will be run out. This includes the Homeopathy in Practice programme. “
Salford, before it became a university, was home to the great L.S. Lowry

Salford’s Peel building, where L.S.Lowry worked

“Managers concluded last year that the BSc traditional Chinese medicine and other degrees with a complementary medicine element “cannot really be held to be a good fit with the strategic direction of the school, and resource and energy would be better directed elsewhere”.

There are more than 70 students registered on the Chinese medicine degree course.

The university will continue to offer these subjects at postgraduate level, as short courses and as part of continuing professional development programmes.  Traditional Chinese medicine work will also be linked to the university’s allied
health professions courses.”

Another report appeared in the Manchester Evening News: “Needle over acupuncture course”. “A UNIVERSITY has scrapped a course in acupuncture and aromatherapy branded `anti-science’ by critics.

Salford University said the three-year degree in traditional Chinese medicine didn’t fit with the `strategic direction’ bosses want to adopt.

The move is part of wider cuts which will see 150 teaching and support staff jobs axed.”

One of their students raised the question that the university must dread.

“First-year student Gary Leese, who is organising a petition, said: “Why did the university launch the course if they didn’t think it was good enough?”

The comments left by the readers of the Manchester Evening News were mostly very sensible. The first to come in, from someone with the beautifully Lancastrian name, Gladys Rowbotham, said “Some common sense at last!”.

A brief report appeared also in the Manchester Confidential

Why now?

This is rather an interesting development.  On 19th April 2007, I sent a Freedom of Information request to Salford to ask for course validation documents for their courses in Homeopathy and in Traditional Chinese Medicine.  I also asked for course materials for specified courses.  This request was even less successful than usual.  Not only were the course materials refused (as they always are), but, unusually, the validation documents were refused too.  The excuse for this was more pathetic than usual too.  They claimed it would cost more than £450 to email a few documents and powerpoints, and claimed exemption under Section 21 of the Freedom of Information Act, “Information Reasonably Accessible to the Applicant by Other Means”, rather than the more usual excuse (Section 43, “Commercial interests”).
It was never explained what “other means” were meant to be available. Perhaps they thought I should pay £3000 in fees and enrol for the course?

On 6th April 2007, Times Higher Education (THE) ran an opinion piece “Credible endeavour or pseudoscience?“.  In this, I wrote, as follows.

“Clearly the buck stops with university vice-chancellors who award the degrees. Two weeks ago, after the publication of my opinion article and a special report on university homoeopathy courses in the journal Nature , the BBC tried to get one of the vice-chancellors to defend themselves. They did not succeed. Letters to vice-chancellors on this go unanswered. Requests to see course materials have repeatedly been refused. The QAA is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. Teaching materials and the names of examiners are kept secret. This I find incomprehensible and indefensible.”

After this appeared, I was sent by the University of Salford a copy of Michael Harloe’s defence of their position at that time, as sent to THE. It relied heavily on validation by the Quality Assurance Agency.  But the QAA is merely a box-ticking organisation that would give top marks to a course in astrology, given a sufficient mound of paperwork, as I pointed out in Nature, “Their own rules prevent them from doing anything useful”.

The statement also said that the courses teach critical thinking about alternative medicine. But it has been pointed out over and over again that what alternative medicine advocates lack, above anything else, is any faculty of critical self-appraisal.

One has to have some sympathy with a vice chancellor who is put on the spot and forced to defend courses in which he probably does not really believe himself. Perhaps it is not surprising that letters so often go unanswered. What can they say?  There really is no answer that doesn’t leave the hapless VC with egg on his face.

If there is one lesson from this, it is not to be discouraged if you get no answer from a vice-chancellor. It has probably been read and may well get acted on eventually.   Shutting down a course is no easy matter.  It takes time.

I said the buck stops with the vice chancellor. Professor Harloe has grasped the nettle and done the right thing.  Let’s hope a few more now follow his excellent lead..

What does this mean for the Pittilo report?

The gamma-minus Pittilo report (see also. The Times) recommended more degrees in alternative medicine, but there seems to be something of a trend developing in exactly the opposite direction.

The University of Central Lancashire has closed the first year entry to its “BSc”  in Homeopathy, and announced a review of all its activities in the area of alternative medicine. Now we have Salford.  There are stirrings among the good scientists even at the University of Westminster which has a new Dean and VC.

This rather absurd situation has arisen because of the adamant refusal of the government, and of a dozen or more quangos, to grasp the nettle of whether or not the alternative treatments work. Time and time again, the one important question that you want to know about any sort of treatment, namely, is it effective, has been pushed under the carpet.

The sort of absurd political correctness that leads to the fraudulent conjurers known as ‘psychic surgeons’ being referred to as a “profession” by the Department of Health has obscured reality. Even the MHRA was persuaded to allow misleading labelling of homeopathic and herbal “remedies”. thus betraying its job.  In its own words “The MHRA is the government agency that is responsible for ensuring that medicines and medical devices work, . . .”.

There is a lesson here.  You can’t go on avoiding reality for ever.  One consolation is that, in the end, it is the universities who are leading the way, albeit slowly.

All we need now is for the Department of Health, the MHRA and the endless box-ticking quangos to wake up too.