UNIVERSITIES who offer science degrees in complementary medicine are heavily criticised today, in a prestigious science journal.

Offering students a "BSc" in homeopathy, reflexology and herbal medicine is potentially harmful, as patients will "falsely" believe they are being treated by a scientifically trained practitioner.

Universities should scrap the BSc title, according to Professor David Colquhoun, a pharmacologist at University College London, who describes homeopathy as "science without science".

Writing in the journal Nature, he criticises 16 UK universities who are offering a total of 45 BSc Hons qualifications in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) subjects.

They include Napier University, Edinburgh, which offers BSc Complementary Therapies (Reflexology and Aromatherapy) and BSc Herbal Medicine (Hons).

In addition, further education colleges in Scotland offer diplomas and other qualifications in homeopathy and other complementary therapies, including acupuncture, osteopathy and Chinese herbal medicine.

In a commentary, Professor Colquhoun argues that the title BSc is unjustified and misleading.

"These subjects are by no stretch of the imagination science, yet they form an integral part of BSc degrees," he says. "Homeopathy is more like a religion than a science. The medicine contains no medicine."

He also cites problems with the science taught in other BSc degrees, such as nutritional therapy, whose proponents "have been known to claim that changes in diet can cure anything from cancer to AIDS".

"There are mickey mouse' degrees in golf-course management, baking or embroidery . . . but what matters is that these degrees are honest. They do what it says on the label. That is quite different from awarding BSc degrees in subjects that are not science at all."

Homeopathy is based on the principle that "like cures like". A patient is assessed by a practitioner, who prescribes a substance which is said to induce similar symptoms to those the patient is experiencing.

But first, the substance is diluted repeatedly in water or alcohol, so much that the dose given to the patient often does not contain even a single molecule of the active ingredient.

Homeopaths believe that the liquid retains a "memory" of the substance. But there is no known scientific mechanism by which this could occur.

Despite these doubts, the market in the UK for homeopathic remedies has exploded - growing from £25m in 1999 to £32m in 2004 in over-the-counter sales.

The complementary medicine market as a whole was valued at £147m in 2004, showing an overall increase of 45% since 1999, according to a report by market research company Mintel.

In Scotland, 60% of doctors' surgeries prescribe homeopathic or herbal remedies, according to a survey of 323 practices in 2003-04.

Children under 12 months were the group most likely to receive a homeopathic or herbal remedy. Almost one in 100 babies in Scotland had received one, provoking fears that children were being put "at risk".

In fact, there is a wide body of evidence to support that homeopathy has a therapeutic benefit but very little to suggest that this benefit is anything more than a placebo.

A six-year study by the NHS Bristol Homeopathic Hospital found that 70% of its patients treated reported positive or very positive benefits for a wide range of chronic health problems including eczema, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome and chronic fatigue syndrome. However, the study had no placebo control group.

The NHS now has five homeopathic hospitals offering integrated, holistic care.

But an NHS review in 2002, encompassing 200 trials of homeopathy, concluded that there is "currently insufficient evidence of effectiveness either to recommend homeopathy as a treatment for any specific condition or to warrant significant changes in the provision of homeopathy".

The Faculty of Homeopathy, the professional body for doctors who practise, takes a different view, arguing that enough evidence exists for their subject to be classed as a science.

Dr Peter Fisher, spokesman, said: "We disagree strongly with the assertion that homeopathy is unscientific. There are 50 positive (and very few negative) peer-reviewed placebo-controlled trials of homeopathy.

"This is far too large a body of evidence to dismiss and warrants further investigation in an open-minded, unbiased spirit of proper scientific enquiry. Universities are just the places to lead this work."

A spokeswoman for Napier University said it stood by the integrity of its BSc degrees.

"The BSc Herbal Medicine course uses an approach to teaching and training that we believe best prepares students for practice within a modern integrated healthcare system," she said.

However, she added that the university plans to phase out the degrees in Reflexology and Aromatherapy because of "a decline in numbers of applicants".