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A friend managed to make my blood boil in seconds today by sending a link to a Labour MP (with an MA from the University of Leeds) spouting off the usual rubbish about how you can buy an Oxbridge MA for a tenner and it's Byzantine privilege.

The reason that you get an MA or Msc for your degree at Oxford or Cambridge is that you do the amount and depth of work required for both an MA and a BA as part of your course. Take classics: literae humaniores as Oxford Byzantinely still calls it (perhaps on the grounds that if you don't know what that means you shouldn't be studying the subject). When I took it it was a four year course, split into 5 terms followed by 13 exams in a week and 7 terms followed by about the same number of exams in about the same amount of time (plus exams at the beginning of every term for checking you had done your vacation reading, plus tutorials, essays, seminars, lectures and the rest) - I haven't kept up with whether the balance has shifted to continuous assessment but with two essays a week plus the seminar and group tutorial work on top of that I'd have been happy to get some course credit as I went along.

The teaching at Oxford is primarily one to one, in tutorials. You're expected to provide evidence of original thought and research and to discuss and defend that. As well as the main subject strands you take multiple special subjects in both halves of the course, producing the equivalent of a short dissertation for each. I know the level of work and the grade at which you're working is equivalent to a masters at another university - because I went on to do an Msc in Intelligent knowledge based systems at the University of Essex and I think a lot of the reason I got a distinction in a subject where I had no previous qualifications was that I was already used to functioning at post graduate level because I'd been doing it for over two years. I earned my masters - both of them.

And I know the scope of my degree was equivalent to a BA and MA elsewhere because of the conversation a friend on the same course had when she thought she was only going to get a pass degree and wanted to look into transferring to another university at the end of her first year (so 3 terms into the 5 term first half of the degree). She interviewed at a university with an excellent reputation for its classics department and they said to here 'it's not worth you coming here; you've already covered more than we do in our entire three year syllabus'.

My MA is worth a damn site more than the fiver I paid for it and fixating on the admin charge is rather missing the point (I paid admin charges higher than that at Essex). Oxford and Cambridge award masters degrees because their undergraduates earn them. Perhaps we should be asking other universities to raise their standards? If other universities want to match a historical accident it might be hard for them to do in the current climate but that's no reason to ask Oxbridge to dumb down. Or perhaps we could agree that a spectrum of further education from vocational to standard undergraduate to more demanding degrees is a good thing and that this attack is more about the chip on someone's shoulder than the actual merits of the Oxbridge system?


( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
16th Feb, 2011 14:50 (UTC)
but labour never have remembered that north of Carlisle is a different country, have they...
16th Feb, 2011 16:06 (UTC)
When I was at Dundee University (lo these many years ago), I was told that this was because they took in students at a lower level than south of the border, and the extra year was effectively at the start.

On the other hand, I was told this by the professor for whom I was working, and he was ex-Cambridge, so he may have been comparing Dundee entry standards to Cambridge ones.
16th Feb, 2011 16:09 (UTC)
yes, I think that's another base canard. US degrees OTOH start with a year that seems to be effectively A levels...

on the gripping hands I've had physics professors at several places tell me that have to do a catchup to get students up from school standard to what A levels were supposed to cover these days...
16th Feb, 2011 16:14 (UTC)
And even if it was true back then, this was in the late 70s, and it could well have changed since then, what with Scotland getting used as a pilot scheme area for hideously impractical schemes so frequently.

(No wonder the Scots are so much more enthusiastic for self government than the Welsh - they've needed it more.)
16th Feb, 2011 14:49 (UTC)

When I was at Girton (1989-1992) I was consistently appalled by the lack of work my school friends had to do at red-brick universities. One essay a term, ffs! And Soc Anth was a pretty light workload compared to other courses at Cambridge. On the other hand, I needed more than both hands to count the number of nervous breakdowns that happened around me (including my own) during my three years.

I got a distinction in my MA from Newcastle in 2009 without really breaking a sweat, in comparison.
16th Feb, 2011 14:53 (UTC)
I'm not advocating the pressure cooker approach and Oxbridge style isn't right for everyone - and Oxbridge needs to explain things to the masses better - but it really is a different level of work from some places and that's why we haz the M's ;-)
16th Feb, 2011 15:45 (UTC)
I can't speak for Oxford, but as far as I'm aware, the Cambridge MSc is a postgraduate 'Masters' qualification, not the amusing bit of paper that is the MA. (Though the majority of Masters degrees appear to be MPhils, with the odd MEd and such.)

Regarding the MA, Cambridge do on occasion award them to people who haven't done a BA at all - bellinghwoman has the only degree in our household, the Cambridge MA that she received a year or so back. She never attended university as a student at all, mostly because she didn't have the financial independence to do so when she was young.

We have a friend who, by dint of having been an undergraduate at Cambridge, having done her doctorate at Oxford, and having now returned to Cambridge as staff, has amassed a total 6 certificates. This is because Oxford and Cambridge cross-certify each other's qualifications for their members. Her having a Cambridge BA, Oxford gave her one. Her having completed a PhD at Oxford, Cambridge gave her one when she returned. Having BAs at both places gives her the customary upgrades too.

So, it is our opinion that while a Cambridge BA may be worth an MA elsewhere, a Cambridge MA is really only necessary to keep HR departments happy.

The Cambridge MA would appear to be a way of saying to the world "We recognise that this person has reached a certain level of ability, and vouch for her quality.". In bellinghwoman's case, she is an established officer of the University, working within its administration department on software. They know her qualities - they pay her salary because of them. They're one of the few places where lack of a degree isn't a problem.
16th Feb, 2011 15:50 (UTC)
Oxford doesn't have a taught/examined or otherwise academic masters of any kind I believe; it causes amusement when trying to name the one year course that US visiting students pay to do (of course this may hae changed by now).

I don't think my Oxford BA/MA entitles me to any Cambridge degree - I think your friend must be in some specific situation like repeatedly studying at both universities...
16th Feb, 2011 15:58 (UTC)
You'd have to become a member of Cambridge to get the cross-qualification. Our friend managed the feat by studying first here at Cambridge, then doing the doctorate at Oxford, and then returning to Cambridge as an officer of the University.

So she's actually studied only twice, but she's been a member of one or other three times.

(For these purposes, we discount her sojourn up in Newcastle, and her commercial sector career as well.)
16th Feb, 2011 15:48 (UTC)
I'm not disputing that the undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge do more than at other universities. But, in that case, why not give out an M.A. as the basic undergraduate degree, as the ancient universities of Scotland do? I have to say I find that more academically defensible than the current situation, where a B.A. is awarded, and then all you need to do to progress to the M.A. is stay alive and pay an admin fee. Alternatively, why not introduce a test that requires one to demonstrate that one has continued study in order to gain the M.A.?
16th Feb, 2011 15:59 (UTC)
well, you don't need to continue to study to get the MA or do any further work; you need to stay alive until the time specified in the statutes after matriculation to recieve your degree. This applies to all degrees, not just the masters and must be holdover from days of yore; it was certainly amusing to see Ruth Lawrence collect all the degrees she had accumulated but could not be awarded until the correct passage of time - she got her BA and at least 2 other degrees when I got my BA and they had repeated sections of the ceremony where the call was given, she was the only person to come forward, the degree was conferred and then she went back only for the call to be given again... but if we're to do away with tradition and pageantry they could start with Black Rod before calling out Oxbridge...

I'm not sure there's any real academic difference in handing the masters over at once - and I suspect that Oxford would rather not get into revising its statutes - once you open the door to one change... and it may be that reminding people that they're members of the university, can come back for the ceremony and have a connection to their college helps with that base business of fund raising. Either way, it doesn't really need changing, it needs explaining - and if politicians can't be bothered to do the absolute minimum of research before spouting off - oh wait...
16th Feb, 2011 15:59 (UTC)
Why not? Tradition, probably, just as why does Cambridge award a BA in Natural Sciences anyway, rather than a BSc.
16th Feb, 2011 23:03 (UTC)
Nice try, but I still don't buy it.

Of course there are cornflake packet degrees out in the wilder world, but 'here's a qualification, you earned it by breathing long enough to hand over the cheque' is degree mill stuff, no matter what you went through to earn the previous one.
17th Feb, 2011 00:45 (UTC)
Hey, gratuitous insult - thanks for playing ;) Not sure about the reading comprehension skills they teach at your degree mill, but the point is it's the same degree rather than a second one. Time is irrelevant.
17th Feb, 2011 08:48 (UTC)
The 'cornflake packet' was referring to Media Studies at Expoly University, rather than the courses you did. But even Russell Group places are not immune: the sociology at one in my time was so bad that even other sociologists didn't count it.

If it was for the course you did, give it at the end and just say 'we don't do mere BA/BScs'.

How much more respect do you get for your Oxford MA than your Bachelor's?
17th Feb, 2011 14:05 (UTC)
I'd expect it to be the same differential of respect between my BA and MA as between my BA and MSc.

As I've explained a couple of times, I understand the delay is because the university statutes lay down lengths of time after matriculation that have to pass before degrees can be awarded. if we're going to change all the bizarre traditions of UK practice, I have some better candidates. Can MPs still put on an opera hat and spy strangers to derail process?
17th Feb, 2011 00:01 (UTC)
This is all quite fascinating to one on the other side of the pond. :)
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )


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