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Monday, October 18, 1999 Published at 12:17 GMT 13:17 UK


Oxbridge MA degrees under threat

Oxford says it wants to keep its 'historical' masters degree

Oxford and Cambridge could be stopped from selling masters degrees to their graduates - as a university watchdog seeks to clarify the qualifications system.

At present, students graduating from Oxford and Cambridge with a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree can acquire a Master of Arts without undertaking any further academic work.

All Oxford graduates need to achieve an MA is to send a small administration charge.

This is now under review by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, the university standards' watchdog, which wants to remove the anomaly of "unearned" degrees and to create a standardised framework for qualifications.

But the University of Oxford is set to oppose such a reform, saying that its "historical" use of the MA title is "quite distinct from other postgraduate qualifications".

In 1997-98, the university says that 1,497 graduates bought a masters qualification, out of a total of 2,452 BA degrees awarded.

The QAA wants to prevent the anomaly of universities awarding qualifications without any additional work - and to ensure that awards such as MAs and MPhils are made for the same level of study.

For instance, while Oxford and Cambridge students can become MAs with a cheque in the post, the same qualification at other universities will mean a year's postgraduate work, with the likelihood of assessed work, dissertations and exams.

There will also be an attempt to clarify what the Master of Philosophy degree represents. At present, an MPhil could mean at least four different levels of achievement:

  • a single postgraduate year at Cambridge
  • a single postgraduate year at a Scottish university (comparable to an MA in most English universities)
  • two postgraduate years at Oxford
  • a student who fails to complete a doctorate

The QAA wants to create a uniform system which will be more comprehensible to employers in the United Kingdom and abroad.

The agency is a non-statutory body which cannot impose such changes, but it will be working with the higher education sector to reach an agreement on the value of qualifications.

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