From where I sit - Doctorates for everyone

March 31, 2011

Question: When is a doctorate not a doctorate? Answer: When it's a master's degree.

So here's the thing: government education ministers in Australia are seriously considering a proposal to award certain master's degrees that would entitle the holder to use the title "doctor of...".

Eh? Run that by me again? It's the doctorate you have when you don't have a doctorate, is it? But if you want a doctorate, shouldn't you, um, do a doctorate? Just saying...

Yes, it might sound elitist to reserve the title of "Dr" for those who have actually done a PhD or a professional doctorate, but I'm in accord with Susan Greenfield, the UK science communicator and researcher, on elitism in universities: it has its place.

So, the new "extended master's" degrees, such as juris doctor of law and doctor of health, will "sit within the master's level of the AQF (Australian Qualifications Framework)", according to the Higher Education supplement in The Australian newspaper earlier this month.

But surely if they are at the doctoral level, they should be part of doctoral programmes, not master's? If they're not at the doctoral level, they should be called master's degrees. Or is that too obvious? How is it possible for a doctor of medicine qualification to be a master's degree? It's confusing, baffling and just plain silly.

I smell a rat. Knowing today's university culture, I'm sure it has something to do with funding. Is this to attract more students, to justify shortened courses and thus turn them around more quickly? Or could it be to provide ever-cheaper labour in the form of poorly paid (or even unpaid) research assistants?

Call me old school, but I believe in the tradition of the doctorate, awarded since the Middle Ages but in its modern form since the early 19th century. As an article in The Economist last December put it: "It is an introduction to the world of independent research - a kind of intellectual masterpiece, created by an apprentice in close collaboration with a supervisor."

I smile wryly to see that the title of that article is: "The disposable academic: Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time".

A PhD is supposed to foster the highest levels of thought and research and the outcome is that new material is added to world knowledge. Such lofty ideals are being whittled away, surely and not so slowly, in a world that values profit, greed and quick fixes above all else.

In addition, this latest miscategorisation seems to be part of a more general trend to demote university qualifications. It's common in Australia for short vocational courses that offer certificates or diplomas, for example, to be popularly referred to as "degrees". The term "degree" seems to have become synonymous with any sort of post-school training.

Soon, school-leaving certificates will be referred to as degrees. But let's not stop there.

Has your child finished infant school? She could well be awarded a bachelor's of childish studies. She can then proceed to a master's in middle-school studies and on to a doctorate in school-leaving studies.

Then again, the new "extended master's" degrees are mostly for those in health and medical fields, many of whom, with only undergraduate degrees, are referred to as "Dr" anyway.

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