Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Oxford and Cambridge MAs

This morning's Guardian Diary trills:
Campus envy likely in the Commons today when MP Chris Leslie unveils his 10-minute rule bill calling for an end to the practice of Oxford and Cambridge Universities giving graduates a free master's degree.
"Converting an Oxbridge bachelor's degree into an MA regardless of academic merit is unfair," says Leslie. "Two hundred thousand postgraduate students in the other 100 UK universities have to study, sit exams and earn their MAs."
This will do nothing to reassure those of us who think this column used to be far, far better than it is now. Because the debate took place yesterday.

Reading it in Hansard, there is no doubt that Leslie is right. The crucial points are the ones he makes here:
That is not only unfair to the 200,000 students who get their MA the hard way, but fundamentally undermines the integrity of the MA marque.

Worse, apparently 62% of employers when surveyed reported that they thought that the MA(Oxon) or MA (Cantab) were genuinely earned postgraduate qualifications.
And, of course, sending in a cheque for £10 does not make you better educated. Further study does.

Certainly, the blustering speech against Leslie's bill by Mark Field did not convince. Half of it was an appeal to history that declined into snobbery:
My college, St Edmund Hall, has a history dating back to 1278. At that juncture, the requirement was to surpass 21 terms after matriculation before qualifying for a master's degree, having taken a bachelor's degree prior to that.
That topping-up arrangement applied happily - dare I say it - for more than six centuries, before Leeds university was even founded let alone started handing out degrees of its own to deserving, and perhaps some slightly less deserving, candidates.
In fact, the history of the Oxbridge MA is more complicated than this allows - Wikipedia is your friend.

The other half of Leslie's contribution was a muddled defence of educational "excellence and elitism" - how do awarding further degrees without further study further those? - and warning about the perils of government interference.

Hugh Muir ended by giggling that Ed Miliband (Oxford), David Cameron (Oxford), George Osborne (Oxford), Oliver Letwin (Cambridge), Ed Balls (Oxford), Vince Cable (Cambridge) and Theresa May (Oxford) might not be keen on the bill.

But, of course, not every Oxbridge graduate bothers to send in a cheque for a cosmetic MA. How many of these politicians did so? That would be interesting to know, but the Diary has declined a long way from the days when it used to break significant stories and it did not think it worth finding out.


Tristan said...

It is not a Masters though. It should be treated as one of those historical quirks which usually love.

It's not meant to signify further learning either, although it is mistaken for that all too often.

Frankly I don't see what business it is of parliament anyway.

I honestly cannot remember whether I claimed mine, I know I didn't attend the ceremony. I would probably put BA on a CV though (at which point some smart arse would no doubt imply I'm not of good character as I don't have the MA)

Dan Falchikov said...

Of course some of us have MAs from Scottish Universities, where it is the standard degree for arts and social science courses.

You'd have thought someone with a name like Leslie might know about this...

Jonathan Calder said...

If you read the debate you will see that Ming the Merciless made that point - by a rather wily route.

dreamingspire said...

Recently I was reminded by a Dublin graduate that they are the third cohort who also get their MA the same way.

Mark Pack said...

Some people who sent in a cheque may also have done so because it means you get another fun ceremony to go to with your family and friends, and to catch up with other people you graduated with, rather than because they particularly want the letters "MA". It can be a bit like a post-graduation catch-up party.

So I wouldn't be surprised if there are plenty of people who have paid for their MA who also think that the system should be changed.

Mark said...

Hugh Muir has single-handedly wrecked the wonderful reputation that the Guardian Diary used to have in the days of Rusbridger and even Matthew Norman.

Alan Muhammed said...

I think this is a welcome distraction for some of our top employers, which helps to mask the argument of what they're actually doing now in attempt to address what they may have been doing a decade ago - that they've since moved on from.

If you walk into somewhere like, for example, Towers Watson (this is not my employer, this is from observation) and asked where the majority of their recent graduate intake come from, the answer would be Bristol, Warwick and City. Some Cambridge, but not nearly as many for many different reasons.

It matters more that you are consistently high performer yet went to these specific universities, as senior people there did the same courses (i.e. mathematics) and have since determined the contents of courses at these universities, to ensure they hire people with the right knowledge and skills.

Oxbridge graduates benefit from the ability to develop a different type of network of contacts giving them different routes into the job market. They are more likely to innovate and take risks with slightly more unusual routes into work to make them appear more distinctive. Yet, not all will use this to their advantage and there are always more people than opportunities.

I think it's false that there is some kind of idea that there is competition between those that have these paid and unpaid MAs. Of course most employers won't know the difference, because most employers are not top employers!

I am not defending the status quo, I think the argument is a distraction and debating this through the myopic, shared political lense, ignores the bigger issues.