Mickey Mouse degrees (or Mickey Mouse courses, known as bird courses in Canada) is a term for university degree courses regarded as worthless or irrelevant. The term is a dysphemism, originating in the common usage of "Mickey Mouse" as a pejorative. It came to prominence in the UK after use by the country's national tabloids.
The term was used by education minister Margaret Hodge, during a discussion on higher education expansion. Hodge defined a Mickey Mouse course as "one where the content is perhaps not as rigorous as one would expect and where the degree itself may not have huge relevance in the labour market"; and that, furthermore, "simply stacking up numbers on Mickey Mouse courses is not acceptable". This opinion is often raised in the summer when exam results are released and new university courses revealed. The phrase took off in the late 1990s, as the Labour government created the target of having 50% of students in higher education by 2010. By her observation that "the degree itself may not have huge relevance in the labour market", Hodge appeared to be reflecting particularly on those reading the Literae Humaniores otherwise known as "Greats" at Oxford University. She was far from the first do so, Samuel Butler making a similar criticism in his novel Erewhon, citing the Colleges of Unreason and the schools of Inconsistency and Evasion. Here the scholars are instructed principally in the science of hypothetics and hypothetical languages as the study of possibilities and remote contingencies is considered an infinitely better preparation for the business of life than that of actualities.
A more critical interpretation of the epithet is that it stems from a general tabloid and folk conflation and reaction to several aspects of academic interest in the latter half of the twentieth century. Such examples include the publication of Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart's political analysis of colonialism and cultural imperialism in How to Read Donald Duck and the endowing of the Disney Chair at Cambridge University with the creation of the Disney Professor of Archaeology in 1851 (John Disney in fact having no relation to Walt Disney).
In 2000, Staffordshire University was mocked as providing "David Beckham Studies" because it provided a module on the sociological importance of football to students taking sociology, sports science, or media studies. A professor for the department stressed that the course would not focus on Beckham, and that the module examines "the rise of football from its folk origins in the 17th century, to the power it's become and the central place it occupies in British culture, and indeed world culture, today." In July 2015, MEP Louise Bours referred scathingly to the module on Question Time as though it was a full degree course; this notwithstanding that her own degree was in Social Sciences from Blackburn College. Other degrees deemed "Mickey Mouse" include "golf management" and "surf science." (though the latter course was based at a large coastal university in an area where surf sports was a growing industry). Similarly, Durham University designed a module centred around Harry Potter to examine "prejudice, citizenship and bullying in modern society" as a part of a BA degree in Education Studies.
One thing these courses share is that they are vocational, which are perceived to be less intellectually rigorous than the traditional academic degrees. Perception has not been helped in the United Kingdom by the conversion in 1992 of polytechnics to New Universities. These universities then have trouble competing with the more established institutions instead of being judged as polytechnic universities (though some Polytechnics have been around since 1838 – London Polytechnic) and have been offering bachelors, masters, and doctorate degrees in academically challenging subjects such as engineering, physics, mathematics, and natural sciences since the early 1900s.
Defenders of these courses object that the derogatory comments made in the media rely on the low symbolic capital of new subjects and rarely discuss course contents beyond the titles. Another factor is the correct or incorrect perception that the take up of these subjects, and the decline of more traditional academic subjects like science, engineering, mathematics, is causing the predictable annual grade rise in the United Kingdom.
Although it is perceived as a recent phenomenon, accusations of "dumbing down" have historical roots.
The A-level in General Studies is seen as a Mickey Mouse subject, as well as A-level Critical Thinking, with many universities not accepting it as part of the requirements for an offer.
Additionally, although not considered Mickey Mouse subjects as such, some qualifications are not preferred by top universities and are regarded as "soft options". A 2007 report stated that the sciences were more challenging than subjects such as Media Studies, which might be taken by students to get higher grades for university applications. An American example is a degree in physical education. These have been issued to members of the college's athletics teams, to make them eligible to play; otherwise they would fail to pass traditional subjects.