The British School of Osteopathy could be eligible for the next research excellence framework, after becoming only the seventh private college to be designated for direct public funding for its research and teaching.
The non-profit BSO has been granted degree-awarding powers by the Privy Council – often a step towards becoming a university – and designated for funding by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
But Edzard Ernst, emeritus professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter, said that osteopathy “is based on assumptions that fly in the face of science and the clinical evidence fails to show convincingly that it is effective for most of the conditions osteopaths treat”.
He argued: “To grant degree-awarding powers to the BSO makes a mockery of the very fundamentals of higher education.”
Professor Ernst was co-author on a 2011 article in the journal Clinical Rheumatology, which examined data from randomised clinical trials and found that “collectively” these “fail to produce compelling evidence for the effectiveness of osteopathy as a treatment of musculoskeletal pain”.
A spokeswoman for the BSO, which has trained 40 per cent of UK osteopaths, said: “We agree with Professor Ernst that there is a need for further research into other aspects of osteopathic care.
“This will build on the existing evidence that supports the use of osteopathic approaches for the treatment of low back pain as included in current clinical guidelines by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.”
Osteopathy is “a way of detecting, treating and preventing health problems by moving, stretching and massaging a person's muscles and joints”, says the NHS Choices website.
According to the BSO, the Quality Assurance Agency’s report on its degree-awarding powers application says that the University of Bedfordshire, the London institution’s current validating partner, “supports the application and sees the school as a mature and responsive institution”.
Hefce funding has traditionally been seen as the dividing line between public and private institutions in higher education.
If the BSO had been Hefce designated prior to the 2014 REF, it would have been eligible to take part.
According to Hefce, six other formerly private institutions have received funding council designation, all since 2001. These include the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (2006) and the National Film and Television School (2013).
The BSO’s spokeswoman said: “We will continue to work with academic research centres in physiotherapy and other rehabilitation therapies to share learning and outcomes. We look forward to the opportunity to develop research applications supported by public funding in the future.”