Oxbridge MAs under MP attack

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The days of of the MA (Oxon.) could be numbered if a private members bill scrapping the traditional degree passes through Parliament.

Master of Arts degrees awarded by Oxford and Cambridge mean all graduates holding a BA or a BFA from Oxford can apply for an MA 21 terms after matriculation, while at Cambridge the rule stands at six years after the end of the first term. MAs are a sign of academic rank within the Universities, rather than an additional qualification 

The “Master’s Degree (Minimum Standards) Bill,” which was proposed by Labour MP for Nottingham East Chris Leslie, would “ask the Qualifications Assurance Agency (QAA) to review whether a minimum level of academic study should be necessary before the award of a Master of Arts,” the MP told Cherwell.

He explained, “Giving out Master’s degrees to Oxbridge graduates in exchange for a £10 admin fee is such an outdated and unfair practice – especially when tens of thousands of hard working postgraduate students have to undergo proper academic study and pay thousands to achieve the same title. It’s barely believable that the practice still goes on. And while I don’t blame Oxbridge graduates from taking the opportunity presented to them, I do feel we need to end this unmerited and confusing patronage once and for all.”

Leslie has a “real” MA in Industrial and Labour Studies from the University of Leeds, and argues that the Oxbridge MA is a slap in the face for the 200,000 students currently for MAs at other universities.

“The Oxbridge MA is a historical anachronism and it undermines the academic integrity of the MA. This unearned qualification causes confusion for employers – the majority of which mistakenly think it is a genuine academic award for postgraduate study. It is a relic of a bygone era, which is irrelevant to modern academic practice and leaves Oxbridge open to the potentially damaging accusations of patronage and unjustified privilege,” said Leslie.

The University of Oxford leapt to the defence of the degree, a spokesman telling Cherwell, “There is no attempt on the part of the University to misrepresent the nature of the Oxford MA. Indeed, if the Ten Minute Rule Bill raises awareness among employers of what the MA does and does not represent, we see that as a positive. As we make clear on our website, the Oxford MA is not an upgrade of the BA, an additional qualification, or a postgraduate degree. It is instead a historic tradition marking seniority within the University.”

He pointed out that postgraduate qualifications at Oxford “have distinct titles, such as MPhil, MLitt, MSt and Msc.”

According to Leslie, one of the strongest cases against the MA is the evidence of a lack of awareness its honorary nature amongst employers. He cites statistics from a survey conducted by the QAA which found that more than 62% recruiters did not know about the practice.

Indeed, one third-year English student said that she wants the MA “in the hope of fooling employers who may not know about the practice.”

Other students have justified the MA on the grounds that undergraduates at Oxbridge work harder than elsewhere.

Hannah Simpson, a second-year at St Hilda’s, told Cherwell, “One of my worries about coming to Oxford was that instead of potentially easily getting a first at another university, you come here and find yourself working really hard to get a 2:1. The workload and standard are different, and I think the MA is a nice gesture that recognizes the effort we put in to our degrees. And it is just a gesture.”

Responding to the claim that Oxbridge students work harder than others, Leslie said, “I’m sure you and other Oxbridge undergraduates work very hard indeed, although I doubt that all Oxbridge undergrads are harder working than everyone else. The Oxford and Cambridge degrees are prized because of their high calibre status and I’m not sure that a top-up MA is necessary to add to that distinction.”

The sentiment was echoed by Jesus College, Cambridge student Rebecca Bailey, who told Cherwell, “I think the MA tradition is a bit bizarre; I have a theory it’s a sort of reward they give freshfaced little Oxbridge grads for surviving a full year in the real world after they leave the shelter of the dreaming spires. I do understand that it originates in the idea that our degrees are supposed to be harder than others, but I think that for most people that is taken for granted just upon hearing that you went to Oxbridge anyway.”

However, she added, “I probably will claim mine though, just because it seems silly not to if it’s being offered. I doubt though that it will be the fact it’s an MA that will give me an advantage in the job market – it will be the fact that it’s a degree from Cambridge that will.”

Students at other universities across the country do not necessarily share a good-humoured view of the Oxbridge MA.

“It’s really unfair, I work hard, pay the same fees as Oxbridge students, and yet I’ll still have to do a whole other degree if I want the title of MA. Even if the Oxford MA is not considered an actual degree, it still gives holders an advantage,” said Rhea Ranjan, an undergraduate at the London School of Economics.

Stephanie Richani, a second-year at King’s College London, said that Oxford and Cambridge MA degrees are misleading. She argued they give Oxbridge graduates an unfair advantage, telling Cherwell, “It’s easy to see how it can lead to them getting jobs even when other applicants are more qualified. Oxford an Cambridge are already the best universities in the country, isn’t that enough of an advantage?”

She admitted, though, that this “unfair advantage” stems from the fact that many employers have no knowledge of the workings of Oxford and Cambridge, adding, “If the two Universities find a way of letting people know about the MA it would be alright.”

The bill is supported by Labour MPs Ian Wright, John Cryer, Kerry McCarthy and Dennis Skinner, Liberal Democrats Rob Russell and Mike Hancock and Tory MP Philip Davies.

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