A Skeptical Look at Bircham International University

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Bircham International University (BIU), headquartered in Madrid, Spain, describes itself this way:

Bircham International University is a private independent institution of distance learning higher education that offers adult degree programs at professional, undergraduate and graduate levels through sound updated curricula, and an innovative distance education university method of instruction. Our commitment is to fulfill the needs of the adult professional student. Bircham University offers distance learning degree programs and an alternative to adults from all countries and cultures who choose not to attend a traditional on-campus university [1].

BIU was founded by Deric Bircham, Wiliam Martin, and Laurence Cheng Wen, who was Bircham's adopted son. A biographical sketch posted to the Newport University Web site states that Bircham had received "over 400 international honours, diplomas, plaques, citations, awards, and medals for his services to literature, photography, management, education, medical science, humanity, the freedom of religious choice and mental mathematics. Among these were nine degrees from nonaccredited entities, three of which (M.D., Ph.D., and Sc.D.) were acquired in 2000, the same year that BIU began offering coursework to students.

This report discusses BIU's academic standing and the credentials and courses it currently offers.

Academic Standing

Accreditation constitutes public recognition that an educational program meets the administrative, organizational, and financial criteria of a recognized agency. Accreditation enables credits to be transferable from one school to another and is used as a basis for entering various professions. BIU is not accredited by any agency recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) in the United States or by any Ministry of Education. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board maintains a list of institutions whose degrees are illegal to use in Texas because they are considered "fraudulent or substandard." Schools outside the United States are listed if the Coordinating Board determines they are "not the equivalent of an accredited or authorized degree." The entry for BIU notes that BIU has no degree-granting authority from Spain [3]. The BIU Web site also notes that BIU is not recognized by Spain's Ministry of Education but is legally permitted to operate under Spanish Law as a provider of "non-formal" education [4]. BIU further notes that non-formal distance learning higher education programs can not lead to degrees officially recognized by a Ministry of Education [5]. But the site lists dozens of organizations and agencies from which BIU has received what it calls "recognition" [6] and suggests various ways in which BIU credentials can still be useful.

Credentials Offered

BIU groups its programs into seven general areas: arts and humanities (36 programs); business and media (41 programs); computer science (10 programs) ; engineering and technology (31); life and earth sciences (29); natural health science (23 programs); and psychology (22 programs). Each program offers five levels of credentials:

Credential Type
Credits Required
Course Duration
Tuition Fee (2013)
Final Exam
Specialist diploma
15 CEUs
3 to 6 months
1,050 Euros (US$1,350)
One or two 20-35 page reports
Expert diploma
21 CEUs
6 to 9 months
1470 Euros (US$1,890)
Two 20-35 page reports
Bachelor's degree
130 credits
1 to 3 years
3,250 to 7,100 Euros
(US$4,095 to US$9,100

Several 20-35 page reports
Master's degree
35 to 50 credits
9 to 12 months
Max: 6,500 Euros
(US$8500)
Several 20-35 page reports
plus 50-page project
Online Ph.D. degree
45 to 70 credits
Average of 24 months
Max: 9100 Euros
($US11,900)
Several 20-35 page reports
plus 70-page thesis

The tuition cost depends on the number of credits that are given for courses taken elsewhere and for life experiences; the more of these, the lower the tuition. Those who obtain their bachelor's degree from BIU are eligible for further discounts. BIU's Study Guide [7] describes how credits for BIU courses are earned this way:

The BIU degree program requires that you read the selected textbooks listed in the Academic Assignment Control form and write reports about those books according to the study guide instructions. One report (20 to 35 pages) will usually account for 3 subject courses of 3 BIU credits each. One report is usually assigned to cover around 350 to 400 pages of a textbook. Thus, the following pedagogical effort is calculated:

Put another way, BIU's students are expected to read assigned textbooks and write reports that show understanding of the subject matter. No laboratory work or face-to-face contact with instructors is required. At traditional colleges and universities, students normally attend classes and take actual tests and 9 credits are usually equivalent to 135 contact hours of instruction with the expectation that students will spend more than thatg on studying and assignments.

BIU's graduate-level degrees usually require a year or less to complete. But at traditional universities, master's degrees typically take 2 years and Ph.D.s typically take 4 to 6 years, during which the students may be required to take extensive coursework, interact with their instructors, and pass rigorous oral and written examinations. In many disciplines, they are also expected to do laboratory work—and programs for future health-care practitioners involve supervised patient care. Traditional Ph.D. theses are expected to reflect extensive research and deep understanding of the subject matter and to make an original contribution to the world literature in their subject area. BIU's Web site indicates that Ph.D. programs will involve discussions with advisors and theses "must be defended in front of a minimum of three members of the Bircham University Academic Network." BIU's Ph.D. programs thus bear superficial resemblance to traditional ones, but it should be obvious that two years of distance learning are not equivalent to 4 to 6 years of traditional academic activity.

In December 2013, the BIU Web site listed more than 400 individuals who have received Ph.D. degrees. BIU also offers honorary doctorate degrees—Doctor Honoris Causa (D.Hon.)—to "individuals who have demonstrated humanitarian or scientific excellence." The Web site states: "Every case is carefully analyzed, and the proposal must be supported by the BIU office director and approved by the BIU Academic Board. Candidates must submit: the Curriculum Vitae + two letters of reference + a minimum donation." In December 2013, the BIU Web site listed about 100 recipients. In private correspondence Martin told me that many were awarded at no cost [8].

Martin also rold me that BIU has enrolled about 6,000 students, only about 200 of which are in a natural health sciences program. In answer to my question about whether BIU courses alone can qualify someone for clinical practice (advising patients), Martin said no and that BIU is very selective about who gets admitted:

So what is the "clinical background" of our students? Specific requirements depend on the major of study and degree. For example: BIU program in Traditional Chinese Medicine is quite small (24 credits). This means that we may only teach up to 24 credits via distance learning. Actual practice of TCM requires much, much more than that, along with actual workshops, practice, etc. (it is 10 years of study in China). So who enrolls at BIU TCM? Usually Chinese TCM who want to hold a Western degree apart from their Chinese credentials. Our programs in Nutrition are more extense and less restrictive. We also admit people with sports training background in Nutrition and from other fields. The "clinical experience" we require is not always clinical. We do have people with a biology, pharmacy or bichemestry background interested in Natural Health and they are admitted. Many of the students from this faculty also have psychology degrees and background and want to complement their psychotherapies with a herbal or homeopatic touch. Many students are interested in the wellness and anti-aging effects of natural health. Not so many are engaged in actual patient treatment and in all of those cases they are already qualified to do so before enrolling at BIU. As I explained in my past emails, we focus in complementing an actual existing educational and professional background. Qualifying someone for practice merely with distance learning will not work [8].

Course Content

BIU's courses include anti-aging therapy, aromatherapy, ayurveda, bioenergetic therapy, colonic irrigation, energy healing, homeopathy, iridology, traditional Chinese medicine, and yoga therapy, all of which partially or entirely embrace nonsense. Most of these courses are within the programs that BIU groups as "natural health and sciences." Homeopathy, for example, includes the notion that products that lack even a single molecule of the supposed active ingredient can still function as powerful medicines. Iridology fantasizes that markings in the eye enable practitioners to diagnose problems through the entire body. Energy healing involves strategies to correct "energy blockages" that the scientific community regards as imaginary. And so on. I find it amazing that BIU not only teaches these subjects but is willing to award Ph.D.s in them. I also take issue with a few of the courses described in the psychology and life sciences programs. However, at least 90% of BIU's programs and course appear to straightforward and fact-based. Assuming that the textbooks are appropriately selected, students can absorb information that is valid and presumably useful. Only a few of the graduates listed on the Web site had Ph.D.s in the pseudoscientific subjects, but BIU's willingness to offer them is an unfavorable sign.

The Bottom Line

In evaluating a school, two things are important. One is the validity of the subject matter. The other is the amount and quality of the work. Bircham University offers what amounts to supervised textbook reading plus credentials that suggest that bearers have considerably more formal education and expertise than they actually have. The requirements for its degrees are much less than those of universities accredited by CHEA-recognized agencies. Most of BIU's teachings are straightforward, but some promote pseudoscientific concepts and practices. None of its health-related programs—by themselves—provide an adequate basis for clinical practice.

References

  1. About BIU. BIU Web site, accessed Dec 17, 2013.
  2. Outstanding persons. Newport University Web site, accessed Dec 19, 2013.
  3. Institutions whose degrees are illegal to use in Texas. Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, accessed December 16, 2013.
  4. USA state restrictions that affect Bircham University. BIU Web site, accessed Dec 17, 2013.
  5. Recognition. BIU Web site, accessed Dec 17, 2013.
  6. World references. BIU Web site, accessed Dec 17, 2013.
  7. Bircham International University Home Study Guide. Downloaded Dec 16, 2013.
  8. Martin W. Email to Dr. Stephen Barrett, Dec 20, 2013.

This article was posted on January 7, 2013.

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