Whatever next, wonders Mr Woodhead, a degree course in underwater embroidery?

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The Independent Online

Higher education is now a market, students have become customers, and, according to Britain's education guru, they are being offered some distinctly suspect goods.

Higher education is now a market, students have become customers, and, according to Britain's education guru, they are being offered some distinctly suspect goods.

The pressure on universities to attract more students has led to a huge expansion in the subjects they offer, and there are now 40,000 different "products" to present to potential buyers.

Degrees in surfing, Asian cookery or golf course management have joined the traditional options such as politics, law or literature, and critics say the increasing quantity has meant universities are creating distinctly dubious degrees.

Questions are increasingly being asked about the value of many of the so-called "alternative" courses. Yesterday, Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools, added to the debate by describing some of the "quasi-academic" courses on offer, particularly at many of Britain's new universities, as "vacuous".

Citing examples such as degrees in knitting, beauty therapy and media studies, he said that many courses designed to give students the basics in a vocational subject were failing to do so. "Mass access has seen the introduction of degree courses that were never dreamt of in the Sixties," he wrote in a Sunday newspaper.

"We spend £6bn a year on higher education. We need to be certain that undergraduate study is in the interests of the individuals applying to universities. What is the point of students completing a course only to find that their degree adds little or nothing to their employment prospects?"

Some of the new degrees have been criticised for being glorified training courses that should last one or two years but have been turned into degrees by adding some unnecessary academic padding. Mr Woodhead wrote that vocational qualifications would only be valued if they led to jobs. "This simple truth has so far eluded politicians who have sacrificed the integrity of vocational training on the altar of vacuous theoretical convolution."

His comments are unlikely to make much impression on Roy Hopwood. Last week the retired plumber, aged 52, was among the first students to graduate with a Higher Education certificate - the equivalent of a degree - in Birmingham Studies. He took the course, naturally enough, at Birmingham University, studying the history, archaeology and people of the city. "Taking part in this course has inspired me to enrol on a Bachelor of Philosophy degree course at the university," he said. "The course was very interesting and informative but it was more than a bit of fun - there was hard work involved."

As part of his course, Mr Hopwood had to complete a 6,000-word dissertation on a subject of his choice. He chose the history of the city's button-making industry.

"The essay took me six months to research and then six weeks to write up," he said. "There was no easy source of information to hand such as a book on the button industry. I had to find it out from a variety of sources. I was surprised just how much history Birmingham has and the important role it has played in the country."

Perhaps naturally, those involved in teaching alternative courses are quick to defend their value. Mark Brake, earth and space sciences field lecturer at the University of Glamorgan, Pontypridd, is teaching the world's only undergraduate degree in science and science fiction. "We are trying to do justice to science fiction as a genre and we are taking into account all its influences including the literature and, since the Seventies, the media which has become increasingly important," he said. "In recent years some of the biggest blockbusters have been science fiction.

"We will be bringing in lecturers from every discipline - for example we will look at the films Robocop and Terminator and our computer scientists can talk about artificial life forms and the advances that are being made, while the humanities professors will take them through everything from Jules Verne and H G Wells to John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids.

"Just because some of the courses sound very specialised, don't forget that all will involve general learning skills which the students can extrapolate. The key thing is that they learn something."

Others argue that critics of alternative courses are merely highlighting their snobbery, or worse. Tom Wilson, universities spokesman for the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, said: "There is a great deal of value in these courses. Higher education has doubled in size in the last 10 years precisely because the new universities in particular are offering these new kinds of degrees.

"I think there is also a certain amount of snobbery and racism. There was a stir when Thames Valley University started offering a course in Asian culture and cuisine which got reported as a degree in how to cook a curry. That would not have happened if it had been European-based. I strongly defend the range of new courses on offer which meet a very evident need."

Monica Hicks, spokeswoman for the Association of University Teachers, added: "Everyone is entitled to their opinion but what [Mr Woodhead] has to answer is the question as to what his knowledge base is or whether this is simply rank prejudice."

There seems little doubt that the growth in such courses will continue. Earlier this year, Staffordshire University ran a course on football culture which included a much-derided class on David Beckham of Manchester United. Academics at Salford University are running a BSc in business economics with gambling studies to prepare students for managing a casino. Plymouth University offers a BSc in surf science and technology, with a business element and a strong scientific slant, and with weekly practicals to give students the chance to ride waves.

And students' new found educational purchasing power is not going to go away. Yesterday the University of Paisley announced it would be giving free £1,000 lap top computers to freshers starting at its Faculty of Communications, Engineering and Science next month.

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