Experts criticise 'pseudo-scientific' complementary medicine degrees

Vice-chancellors should re-examine courses, say campaigners. Zoe Corbyn reports

April 24, 2008

Universities have been criticised for offering "bogus" degrees in a new ranking designed to embarrass vice-chancellors into debate on the scientific basis for complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).

A top five list of universities offering "unscientific" qualifications has been compiled by Edzard Ernst, professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter, and popular science author Simon Singh - who release their new book Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial this week. David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology at University College London, also took part in the project.

The aim of the list, topped by the University of Westminster (see table), is to highlight what the campaigners say is both the alarming extent to which alternative medicine is being taught in UK universities and the unwillingness on the part of some vice-chancellors whose institutions run the courses to engage in debate.

"The lack of engagement from the worst offending universities has motivated us to draw up this league table ... we want to embarrass them into acknowledging the pseudo-scientific degrees they are offering," they said, adding that some vice-chancellors seemed more interested in "earning money from students than retaining academic integrity".

Compiled by trawling the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service and university websites, they conclude that 43 institutions offer a total of 155 "unscientific" courses in areas including homoeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture, Ayurvedic medicine, aromatherapy, Naad yoga (healing through music) and general complementary medicine.

Although qualifications offered ranged from diplomas and foundation degrees to PhDs, the campaigners homed in on BSc, MSc and MA-level qualifications to produce the top five list, which also includes the universities of Greenwich, Middlesex, Salford and Thames Valley.

The courses, the campaigners say, are not suitable because they are focused on creating CAM practitioners rather than being critical. It is "dishonest" to give them labels such as BSc and MSc because it implies that they have a scientific basis, they add.

"They will claim to be critical - to talk about evidence-based medicine - but the bottom line is that the lecturers believe (the treatments) have therapeutic value and they are trying to pass on the therapeutic practice to their students," said Dr Singh. "It is besmirching the reputation of British university education."

Dr Singh urged vice-chancellors to re-evaluate what the list has described as "bogus" degrees and researchers to campaign for their universities to do the same.

A spokesman for the University of Westminster said, "(Our) complementary therapies courses share a common core of health sciences, research and critical reflection, representing more than 50 per cent of the academic modules studied."

"It is difficult to see how anyone could consider the healthcare system of Ayurveda as 'non-scientific'. People from India and Sri Lanka have considered it science for thousands of years," said a spokeswoman from the University of Middlesex.

Tim Duerden, a senior lecturer in physiology and complementary medicine at the University of Salford, said the evidence base for CAM was very variable and the courses offered an excellent opportunity for students to develop their critical faculties.

The University of Greenwich, cited in the list with five courses, said the campaigners had wrongly listed one course, a BSc in complementary therapies with three different strands, as three separate courses. Two other courses listed are being withdrawn, it said. Thames Valley said its MA course in yoga was not offered by its science faculty.

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