ANTI-TAX campaigners prompted a furious backlash from academics last night after accusing institutions of offering “Mickey Mouse” degrees.
The Taxpayers’ Alliance, an umbrella group that lobbies for lower taxes and highlights public sector “waste” to support its case, singled out two Welsh institutions – the University of Glamorgan and the Welsh College of Horticulture – for issuing “non-degrees”.
Glamorgan’s science-fiction and culture degree, and equestrian psychology, available as a foundation degree at the Welsh College of Horticulture in Mold, Flintshire, appeared on a hit-list published by the Alliance, along with golf management, available at Inverness.
The courses cost the taxpayer £40m a year the Alliance claimed, enough to save other students £100 a year.
But universities reacted angrily, accusing the Alliance of misunderstanding the nature of 21st century higher education. The University of Glamorgan said graduates from its course had gone on to work for Nasa.
Peter Cuthbertson, who compiled the report for the Taxpayers’ Alliance, said, “Political priorities have led to a never-ending drive to increase the number of students in university. As a result, there has been a massive expansion of ‘non-degrees’ of little or no academic merit. The government has failed in its pledge to abolish ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees.”
The row echoes a controversy in 2004 over a now discontinued degree in surf and beach management at Swansea Institute.
Peter Morris, a retired teacher from Swansea and chair of the Professional Association of Teachers in Wales, attacked “trendy” degrees in a speech last month, saying the government was “dumbing-down education”.
But a spokesman for Universities UK, the organisation that represents University vice-chancellors, was scathing about the latest attack, saying, “Had they [the Taxpayers’ Alliance] done a little more research, they would have found that these so-called ‘non-courses’ are in fact based on demand from employers and developed in association with them.
“Graduates on these courses are in demand from employers who are looking for people with specific skills alongside the general skills acquired during a degree such as critical-thinking, team-working, time-management and IT skills – a point lost on the authors of this rag-bag of prejudices and outdated assumptions. Students know this – which is why these courses are often over-subscribed and have high employability rates.”
A degree in golf management would combine elements of business and accounting and prepare students to work in an industry worth millions to the economy, he added.
The row comes as tens of thousands of students prepare to go to university.
A spokeswoman for the University of Glamorgan said, “In a time where students are choosing to shun the more traditional science subjects, the BSc science: fiction and culture is successful in engaging students in science.
“The course looks at the role of science in society and the way science is communicated to the public and, as such, many of our graduates go on to become science teachers.
“For other graduates the course is a stepping stone to further scientific postgraduate education as well as successful scientific-based careers.
“Several past graduates from the course have found employment with Nasa.”
The Welsh College of Horticulture is offering a two-year foundation degree in equine psychology in collaboration with North East Wales Institute (NEWI) in Wrexham. On its website it says the course “provides a well-balanced package of skills and knowledge ideal for those intending to work in the equine industry”.
Manchester Metropolitan University, criticised for offering a BA in fashion buying for retail, said the relevant department was “highly respected”, and 98% of its graduates found work.
Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell said, “The decision of which courses to provide is a matter for universities but, given that employment outcomes for higher education in the UK are very positive, I do not believe that courses that do not meet employment needs would survive for long.”