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BBC Scotland's Colin Wight
"Graduates find that employers do not fully understand the significance of their degrees"
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Tuesday, 4 July, 2000, 14:53 GMT 15:53 UK
Scottish qualification questioned
University graduation
Aberdeen University students receiving their MAs
A distinctive feature of Scotland's higher education system, the Master of Arts degree, is under threat.

Advisors to the UK's universities have recommended the standardisation of undergraduate degrees across the UK.

According to research for the academic standards watchdog, the Quality Assurance Agency, eight out of 10 employers are confused by higher education qualifications.

In particular companies have difficulty figuring out what a Master of Arts degree means.


While we recognise that the MA is a title which has been used for hundreds of years, the fact that it is not a postgraduate qualification causes considerable confusion

John Randall
QAA chief executive
Half of those questioned thought an MA from Edinburgh University was a postgraduate qualification.

In Scotland it is used for undergraduate studies, unlike the rest of the UK where it is generally known as a postgraduate qualification.

Now Scotland's ancient universities are coming under pressure to scrap the MA, but change is likely to be resisted.

'Bureaucratic nonsense'

Ian Macdonald, senior vice principal at Aberdeen University, said: "We are very supportive of the QAA in terms of its efforts to improve quality in university education.

"But in this particular instance it is talking bureaucratic nonsense and money could be better spent on quality rather than attack the MA."

The Scottish head of the agency, Norman Sharp, emphasised that it had no authority to force universities like Glasgow, Edinburgh, St Andrews and Aberdeen to change the name of their degrees.

But he said the important thing was that students and employers were aware of what qualifications mean.

UK conformity

The QAA's chief executive, John Randall, wants the title to be used for postgraduate qualifications only.

But he is likely to face stiff opposition as the MA has been described as a "hallmark" of the Scottish university system.

The QAA is a publicly-funded monitor of academic standards for the UK, and Mr Randall wants to replace the MA with the Bachelor of Arts degree as part of a new UK-wide qualifications framework to be introduced next year.

He said: "While we recognise that the MA is a title which has been used for hundreds of years, the fact that it is not a postgraduate qualification causes considerable confusion, particularly south of the border and on the continent.

"Therefore we feel it would be productive for Scottish institutions to give thought to the idea of replacing it."

The QAA's research found:

  • 81% of employers found it fairly difficult or very difficult to understand what higher education qualifications mean

  • 96% of employers want the same qualification title from different institutions to represent the same level of academic achievement.

  • Most employers think the MA always represents an award for postgraduate study

  • The ancient Scottish universities award the MA after undergraduate study, yet 51% thought an Edinburgh MA was a postgraduate award.

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25 May 00 | UK Systems
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