Academic courses lacking in “intellectual rigour” at West Midlands universities should be scrapped to help ease the funding crisis in higher education, leading politicians have said.
Universities in the region are offering three-year courses in celebrity journalism, geography with mountaineering and fashion accessories, which sees undergraduates studying design of handbags and belts.
And a Bachelor of Science degree in complementary medicine at Wolverhampton has come under fire after the chairman of an influential parliamentary committee branded its subject material “unscientific”.
There are fears that the university system will be brought to its knees after the Government slashed £449 million from budgets for next year.
Lord Digby Jones of Birmingham has been a leading voice on university reform and said he was concerned that continued funding of less academic courses could cost Britain dear.
He said: “There are a huge number of qualifications where we should be asking ‘do they have to have degree status?’”
“That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be studied at all but I’m worried that we are trying to create a one-size-fits-all approach whereby you can spend three years at university and get a degree.
“I don’t think you can study something like complementary medicine or celebrity journalism in the same way as physics.
“At a time when money is tight, you have got to target the things that will take the country forward and create a knowledge-based economy.”
Tuition fees of £3,000 a year were introduced for students in September 2006, but the Government still funds an average of two thirds of university education.
The announcement by Business Secretary Lord Mandelson left universities fearing that they would have to increase class sizes and axe certain courses.
Some academics and politicians have now rounded on “Mickey Mouse” courses and say they should be axed ahead of science degrees.
Staffordshire University will offer celebrity journalism from September and promises to teach students about “the role of the press in today’s celebrity-led society and the ethical considerations for journalists”.
The same university offers the opportunity to study mountaineering as part of a degree in geography while Coventry University runs a three-year BA course which promises to teach the skills needed to produce jewellery, footwear, scarves and belts.
One course which has proved particularly controversial is Wolverhampton’s BSc in complementary therapies, which includes aromatherapy, reflexology, homeopathy and Reiki.
The Government was last month urged to stop funding homeopathy on the NHS after the The Commons Science and Technology Committee heard that its basis was scientifically implausible.
The 200-year-old system of homeopathy is based on treating ailments with highly diluted substances and has been funded at a cost of £4 million a year by the taxpayer since 1948.
The committee, headed by Liberal Democrat MP Phil Willis, said that claims of practitioners were “scientifically implausible”.
Prescribing homeopathic medicines on the NHS amounted to encouraging doctors to participate in “active deception” of their patients.
The universities of Central London, Salford and Central Lancashire have already dropped homeopathy degrees.
Mr Willis, a University of Birmingham graduate, said: “Courses which focus significantly or purely on homeopathy should not be offered at the taxpayers expense.
“If people want to spend their own money on them, there are plenty of private courses and good luck to them.
“A BSc in homeopathy is a contradiction in terms. It’s not for the Government to say they shouldn’t do it but all universities should want to offer science courses that actually have their basis in science. There’s just no intellectual rigour.”
The Yorkshire MP was also scathing of “dumbed down” degrees in other areas and said the Government must do more to promote excellence in areas of science.
“Degree courses must have an intellectual integrity and clearly some of them don’t,” he said. “What they are doing is generating an art form out of science.
“Graduates find it difficult to go in to good jobs at the moment and we are doing them a disservice if we allow them to get in to debt without actually getting much further in life.
“I abhor dumbing down.
“If we are going to build an economy which is based on knowledge we have really got to spend more money on these key areas.
“Aston for example has got a fantastic record in engineering and it ought to have more money to spend than universities which promote courses which are so peripheral to society.”
Dr Richard Pike, the head of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said public funding should not be available for the celebrity journalism courses while there was a need to research diseases.
But those who lecture on the course claim it has an important role in preparing students for a changing jobs market.
They include Prof Ellis Cashmore, who hit the headlines when he launched a football culture module a decade ago.
It was dismissed as “David Beckham studies” by critics, but he said it was still running at Staffordshire University and claimed critics would eat their words over the celebrity journalism degree.
“It’s pointless arguing that it’s as worthy as chemistry or physics,” he said. “But what we are doing at Staffordshire is adapting to meet changing tastes.
“Although celebrity journalists might be considered to be at the bottom of the totem pole in terms of the importance of the subject, there are positions for them.
“Celebrity is everywhere and there has been an explosion in the numbers of magazines which focus on it.
“I completely agree that degrees have got to have intellectual rigour and I think that a lot of the people who criticise media degrees would be surprised how challenging they are.”
A spokesman for Wolverhampton University said there were no plans to axe the complementary therapies course.
Viv Hinks, from the university’s school of health and wellbeing, said: “The University of Wolverhampton runs a successful complementary therapies degree which recruits well.
“The course is a Bachelor of Science because we have included science modules within the programme that underpin and extend the therapists’ knowledge.”
A spokesman for Coventry University said: “All of our courses are put on to meet the demand of students.
“The fashion accessories course is relatively new but already a number of students have gone to work for fashion houses and won awards.
“We are seeing the benefits already.
“We haven’t identified any courses that will be cut. It’s more likely to be a tightening of belts.”