This afternoon in Lords Question Time Lord Taverne asked the Government:

“what steps they are taking to discourage United Kingdom universities from offering Bachelor of Science degrees for courses in alternative medicines such as aromatherapy, reflexology and Chinese medicine?”

The following exchange then took place:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Henley): My Lords, universities decide what they should or should not teach. This is a key protection of academic freedom and helps to maintain the world-class reputation of our higher education institutions.

Lord Taverne: My Lords, with great respect, as lawyers used to say when they meant the opposite, will the Minister convey to his department that that is not an entirely satisfactory Answer? How can the Government justify supporting universities that show no regard for academic standards and offer science degrees in courses which teach that certain essential oils cure specific diseases, areas of the foot lead to pathways to certain inner organs, and health depends on the pattern of energy flows within the body? If the Government believe in evidence-based science, can they really remain indifferent to the fact that some of their funds are used to promote quackery and mumbo-jumbo and call it science?

Lord Henley: My Lords, I again remind my noble friend that it is very important to remember that universities are autonomous bodies and it is for them to make decisions about these matters. The Government have no power to intervene. I have some sympathy with the message that my noble friend is getting across but it would be wrong for the Government to intervene in these matters.

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, is it not the case that the Government have differentially removed resources from universities on the basis of some of the courses concerned? Does the fact that resources are not being withdrawn from these Bachelor of Science courses suggest that the Government are endorsing the pseudo science that is implicit within them? If they are not endorsing that pseudo science, why are they allowing the funding to continue?

Lord Henley: My Lords, the noble Lord is trying to take us back to a debate we had last week. Those matters have been dealt with. I am making clear that it is not for the Government to interfere. We offer guidance to HEFCE. The letter to HEFCE from Dr Vince Cable and David Willetts went out yesterday. That sets out the parameters for HEFCE to make the appropriate decisions about university funding, but it is not right that we should do that.

Lord Willis of Knaresborough: My Lords, given the legislation that went through this House last week, which will now see the taxpayer underwriting degree courses at £9,000 a year, does the Minister accept that the taxpayer should fund what is little less than quackery in universities such as Thames Valley which offer BSc honours courses in homeopathy?

Lord Henley: My Lords, again I make it clear that it is for the higher education institutions themselves to make these decisions. It would not be right for the Government to interfere.

Lord Krebs: My Lords, in choosing to fund these courses in universities, will HEFCE treat them as science, technology, engineering and medicine courses, in which case they will receive a higher allocation than if they were not treated as such?

Lord Henley: My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very good point. I do not know the answer to it but I will certainly make inquiries and write to him. Again, I reiterate the fundamental point that these are matters for HEFCE to decide, not the Government.

After a brief diversion, while a number of peers described their personal affection for chinese remedies, the Minister was pressed again:

“Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, the noble Lord says that it is at the discretion of HEFCE as to how university courses should be funded differentially. Is he actually saying to the House that it is a matter for HEFCE as to whether or not funding for the humanities and social sciences teaching is to be cut by 100 per cent?

Lord Henley: My Lords, we have offered guidance to HEFCE in the letter that I mentioned, which was published yesterday. I will make a copy available to the noble Lord. It is then for HEFCE to make its decisions.

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, what does that guidance say about pseudo-science and the courses which the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, mentioned in the first place?

Lord Henley: My Lords, I will make the letter available to the noble Lord as well.”

So the Government have given “guidance” about funding but can’t say what it is ….

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