The unique Oxbridge MA is under fire after a bill demanding its withdrawal was brought forward to Parliament this week.
Nottingham East Labour MP Chris Leslie attacked the tradition as giving an unmerited advantage to the 3000 Oxbridge graduates a year who choose to receive the award. He also criticised the award for devaluing the work of all the postgraduates who take MA qualifications at other universities.
“The perception that the Master’s degree is an earned postgraduate award is commonplace and unless you are familiar with the peculiar traditions of Oxford or Cambridge this is not surprising,” Leslie said.
Currently students with a Bachelor’s degree from Oxford or Cambridge are able to gain an MA simply by waiting three or four years and paying a £10 administrative fee.
But at other universities in the country, the only way to gain an MA is by studying as a postgraduate.
Research by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), the higher education watchdog, has suggested that up to 60 per cent of employers did not know that the Cambridge MA did not require further study.
Leslie added: “I have no objection whatsoever to conferring voting rights on graduates, but surely it is time to stop calling this a Master’s degree? 200,000 students study hard for their postgraduate qualifications each year and it is unfair that they could be improperly compared with others listing an unearned MA in their CV.
“My Bill would simply ask the Qualifications Assurance Agency to review the minimum standards of academic study necessary to obtain the Master’s degree title – I don’t think that is in any way an interference in the independence of universities who should be attuned to the way the wider world perceive the integrity of qualifications.”
An Oxford University spokesman responded: “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.”
A second year student at Wadham said: “With the worst financial crisis this country has seen for generations, one of the tightest squeezes in living standards, and rising crime and social problems, does Parliament really have nothing better to do than discuss the technicalities of the Oxbridge degree system?
“If our politicians really want to target undeserved university awards, they should start at the bottom, and reform obscure courses at even obscurer universities, not attack two of the most prestigious and challenging institutions in the country.”
The bill does have some support from other MPs from all three main parties, but any change is not currently seen as a priority.
Universities Minister David Willetts, who has an MA from Oxford, defended the status quo: “Perhaps the opposition’s rootless rationalism means they have no taste or love for those conventions and traditions that have developed over centuries, but we rather like ancient traditions.”
He also raised concerns over the level of interference in individual universities which would be involved, and disputed the figures in the QAA’s research.
Currently the QAA states that Master’s degrees are awarded to students who have demonstrated “advanced scholarship”, but does not outline any timeline for this study.