Degrees should be earned, not bought

It’s archaic, unfair, unnecessary, elitist and offensive, and the university should put a stop to it, some argue. Depending on what headline has been put above this piece, there’s a fair chance you won’t have guessed the subject I’m talking about. To be fair, Oxford has quite a few things that would fit the description: the gender gap at finals? The disparity between colleges’ resources? Sub fusc, perhaps? Or drinking societies? Fit College, maybe?

No, none of the above; I’m talking about the Oxford Master of Arts degree, the scheme by which once 21 terms (that’s seven years, fellow humanities students) have passed since their matriculation, holders of Bachelors of Arts or Fine Arts degrees can take their MA. The word ‘take’ pretty much sums up the process – you pay £10, and, err… that’s it. It seems an attractive chance for an upgrade, on the face of it, except as the websites of various colleges make clear, that’s not the right way of looking at it. “Please note the Oxford MA is about reaching a new status within the university and not an upgrade of your BA or an additional qualification,” the warning reads.

If not an upgrade, what does that new status actually mean? Until 2002, that new status allowed you voting rights in elections for Oxford’s chancellor and its professor of poetry. Nowadays, all graduates get those powers and as such, the MA is essentially just a prize for not having died yet. Hooray.

Of course, having an MA might lend you an advantage – an unfair one, it scarcely merits saying – in the job market, as various studies show that many employers don’t know that the Oxford MA (nor for that matter its Cambridge equivalent) is not an earned degree. It might allow you greater social status, depending on the circles in which you move, or perhaps cheaper car insurance, I don’t know. It might just make you happy and give you a good day out should you choose to attend your ceremony. And to be honest, a bit of pomp, circumstance and a new accolade does seem somewhat attractive.

The 21-term mark arrived last summer for me. I was roughly aware that it was due at some point, but I rather expected my college to approach me and offer the MA – perhaps alongside the request to donate some money to the college. That didn’t happen, and in the event I emailed the college, was told who I needed to get in touch with, and the whole process felt rather dull and lacking in either pomp or circumstance. I didn’t go through with it.

There’s nothing inherently bad about the Oxford MA – surely employers who don’t check out what your qualifications mean have nobody but themselves to blame when they find out their exciting new mid-20s Oxonian hire only really has a BA. No two degrees are ever equal anyway and no one can seriously imagine that they are, or could be, or should be. If you earned a Masters through doing actual work and you feel offended by someone taking what is acknowledged to be an empty degree then, quite frankly, grow up.

The degree itself is pretty close to meaningless, and on that grounds, I’d probably vote for its abolition if asked. Not that that’s on the cards; although the university does come under periodic pressure to abolish the MA arrangement, a member of its media team told me it has “no current plans to review it”. I was also told that with the MA handled individually by colleges, there is nothing in the way of statistics for its uptake.

Among my contemporaries, I’m not aware of anyone who has taken the MA. I tried to do a straw poll of friends to find out if any had, but most of them turned out to be scientists, sadly. I say sadly purely because that meant that they had all gotten Masters Degrees through doing actual work (that old chestnut) and therefore were not useful for my survey.

Then a historian friend, and avowed lefty, messaged me. “I’m tempted to be bolshy and say pish to outmoded, unfair Oxbridge toffee-nosed tradition. But there is also,” he said, “the temptation whispering in my ear to add more letters to my name to make me feel superior to the man on the Clapham omnibus, who only has a BA from Bristol.” For all my protestations, I must admit I actually feel the same. You can take us away from Oxford, but you can’t take that love-hate relationship with this grand, bizarre, frustrating, wonderful institution away from us.

Sam Burne James BA (Hons.) studied Italian and Spanish at Christ Church (2007-11). He is now a senior reporter at charities sector magazine Third Sector @samburnejames