Private degrees will be bad for science education

This morning, the government’s proposals to shake up higher education by compelling universities to compete for student places have met with criticism for a number of reasons. Particularly scandalous is the option – being considered – of allowing wealthier students to pay off their loans early, so that poorer graduates end up in greater amounts of debt than their richer counterparts.

That, I suspect, will be for another post. The issue that I want to focus on here is that, if the proposals outlined in Universities Minister David Willetts’ White Paper are taken forward, private companies will be allowed to offer degrees, and compete with mainstream universities for student places.

This government’s free-market fetishism has already encroached upon the hitherto National Health Service, and it appears that the same will happen in higher education also. Quite why competition is touted as the solution to all of life’s problems (even, it would seem, those that most of us weren’t even aware existed) isn’t clear, but whatever the reasons behind it, the introduction of private providers of degrees into the university system is one that must be resisted at all cost.

As Shadow Universities Minister John Denham pointed out this morning, opening universities up to this kind of competition will likely incentivise the mass creation of cheap humanities places at the expense of more costly science and engineering courses. At a time when science and engineering graduates are needed more than ever, this seems to be a reckless move. Recall that, whenever higher education is discussed, conversation always seems to drift towards the stereotype of the lazy, feckless humanities student, who spends four hours a week in the classroom and the rest of the time squandering his student loan on cheap alcohol. The reality is very different, of course – particularly for students of the sciences, who generally have more contact hours, for instance – but the stereotype persists, and the government’s response to this is apparently to create more humanities places and fewer in the sciences.

The other danger concerns the kind of private providers who might emerge, in the post-Willetts “degrees market,” and what kind of threat they might pose to useful, honest science education. Plenty of universities today offer courses in medicinal quackery like reflexology and herbalism, and this can surely only get worse under an unregulated market system. Indeed, as David Colquhoun, tireless campaigner against this kind of nonsense, pointed out on Twitter when I raised the issue, private degree providers would be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, making the kind of work he does much harder.

The slope from there, to a situation where private universities could offer degrees in other ignorant pseudosciences like Creationism (as is the case in the US), would probably be sufficiently steep and well-oiled for it to be traversed with a minimum of fuss, to paraphrase Douglas Adams.

It is in nobody’s interest to have universities offering degrees in quackery and pseudoscience, muddying the waters of what constitutes honest science and what does not. It is unconscionable for them to be able to rake in massive profits while doing so. It is vitally important, therefore, that this dangerous element of the government’s plans for universities is dropped immediately, if not sooner.

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Filed under Education, Politics, Science

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