“Mickey Mouse” masters under fire


The tradition of awarding Oxbridge students an honorary MA title may have come to an end after a new bill demanding the privilege be withdrawn was outlined in parliament last Tuesday 16th February.

In the past, students with a Bachelor’s degree from Oxford or Cambridge could pay a small administrative fee to add the letters “MA”, denoting “Master of Arts”, after their name within three or four years of graduation.

The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), a universities watchdog, had expressed its concerns about the MA previously.

Now the title is under renewed pressure by Labour MP Chris Leslie, who fears that the tradition provides graduates with an unmerited advantage in the careers market.

Leslie described it as “an outdated and unfair practice – especially when tens of thousands of hard working post-graduate students have to undergo proper academic study to achieve the same title”.

The proposal follows a survey by the QAA revealing that more than 60 percent of employers fail to realise that the title does not constitute a higher degree.

True post-graduate degrees from Oxford are clearly designated from the ornamental MA, with titles such as MLitt, MPhil, MSt and Msc.

But the confusion of most recruiters between MA (Oxon) and MA (Nottingham) has angered those who have to put in extra years of study, sit exams and pay further tuition fees before they can claim their true academic MA.

One post-graduate student commented: “I’d be happy if MA (Oxon) got replaced by MMA (Oxon) – meaning Mickey Mouse Award (Oxon).”

The proposal has rekindled previous debates regarding the integrity of ‘selling’ the extra accreditation, which is now being contested even more strongly in the light of current government reforms to higher education.

Initial research undertaken by the QAA a decade ago revealed that “1,497 graduates bought a masters qualification, out of a total of 2,452 BA degrees awarded.”

The MA awarded to undergraduates after a four-year course in Scotland’s top universities has also become entangled in the government’s overhaul of qualification rubric. Politicians are attempting to standardize the system, clear any confusion and place graduates on a more equal footing through the proposals.

One student defended the Oxbridge MA, citing the increased workload involved in an Oxbridge course compared to other universities.

“The ‘automatic’ granting of the MA is just recognition of the higher academic standards at these institutions”, said the student.

Some academics have joined Leslie in challenging the courtesy title. Speaking last year at Cambridge University’s Senate, Dr Neil Dodgson, a computing professor, said: “Many find it offensive that we should award a degree for doing nothing more than being able to breathe for three years.”

Leslie said: “I do not blame Oxbridge graduates from taking the opportunity presented to them; we would probably all do the same if the free option were available everywhere.”

He also emphasised the importance of what he termed “fair play” in the awarding of titles. “Creating a level playing field of minimum academic standards for Master’s degrees would enhance the integrity of all universities”, Leslie said.

The University Press Office stated that Oxford “has not taken a position yet” on the matter.