Par for the course

In pursuing excellence, whether in golf or in research, the time invested in training and preparation is vital. So how long should a master's degree be? asks Don Olcott Jr

April 8, 2010

In some circles, "masters" means only one thing, and it certainly is not higher education, especially at this time of year. For early April is when the year's first major golf competition, the Masters Tournament, gets under way in Georgia.

The Masters, its rich history and traditions and the majestic setting of Augusta National Golf Club would make for an excellent tale. It is, however, a story better suited for a journalist hoping for a magical storyline that enters Masters folklore, or perhaps to see Tiger Woods "take it to the limit" one more time (a story best left out of bounds here).

My story here is about another tradition, the master's degree. Today, there is growing interest, debate, reflection and concern about what constitutes a sound, high-quality master's degree. But there seems to be little movement. Universities seldom go out of their way to call a penalty on themselves, unlike genuine golfers who embrace the rules that govern their sport as sacred literature. Whether it is admissions debacles, suspect practices on athletics programmes or diploma-mill marketing, it is often left to those outside the academy to add up the penalty strokes on the ethical scorecard.

In discussing the master's, academics argue over quality parameters, content, research requirements and other intricacies of the degree, but perhaps the issue that causes most argument is that of course length. Here again is an analogy to the golfer, for whom the ability to get length or distance on a drive is a tactical and strategic advantage. In the university, however, the issue is simply what is the optimal length of time in which to complete a 21st-century master's degree.

The range of viewpoints on this question is diverse. Across the globe, master's degrees range from nine months to more than two years in length. Many academics do not see a problem with this variety: it's our degree and it's accredited, they argue, so we decide, period (mix academic freedom with a dose of parochialism and the similarities between a graduate degree and a 300-yard drive begin to diverge).

Golfers who desire greater length on the course must make physical changes to their swing, work on their timing and put in hours of practice to improve. As rules governing the design of golf clubs and balls are regularly revised to ensure that equipment does not provide an unfair competitive advantage, this facet of the game is the same for all players. The individual decides to make changes and choices with the goal of hitting the ball farther.

It's a different story for the graduate student. The length of time required to complete a master's is never a student's decision. The student's only control is selecting a course. Of course, given a choice between a one-year master's and a two-year master's, the student will always take the longer degree to perfect their expertise and skills, right? Wrong - two-stroke penalty and no frequent-flyer miles.

It's time to hit into the rough and look at the real behind-the-tree issues.

The central issue in this debate about the optimal length is competition, not quality, as many academics would argue.

A programme that allows students the choice of a shorter degree timeframe gains a competitive advantage over those of rival institutions. Of course, students assess a programme on more factors than length alone: reputation, quality, cost, available graduate assistantships, financial assistance, compatibility with work and family obligations and a host of other considerations all come into play.

And for institutions, longer master's degrees must mean more revenue for the programme. If so, why move towards shorter master's degrees? The answer is competitive advantage - or, more precisely, perceptions of competitive advantage.

Today's global higher education landscape is one in which providers are competing for students amid unprecedented financial challenges. This terrain is further complicated by the fact that higher education systems across the world have different traditions, funding patterns and philosophical tenets.

In Europe, there is a long history of free university education at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels for the masses, although most graduate programmes charge minimal tuition fees. Why would degree length be an issue? The funding comes in and the students don't pay exponential increases from their personal income regardless of course length.

In other nations, most notably the US, the money issue is paramount. Tuition fees are already high at all levels of higher education, and they continue to rise. The length of a degree is a crucial consideration for students and for institutions running graduate programmes. Students love shorter courses because they are cheaper, although the issues for students are not exclusively about cost. Institutions, on the other hand, see that the longer they can keep students in their clutches, the more money there is for the programme and the university.

In America, the key factor making degrees longer is a "more is better" strategy that has resulted from the push for assessment and student learning outcomes over the past decade - rather an ironic strategy for enhancing academic quality and student performance considering that it is not uncommon for a US undergraduate to take five to six years to finish a first degree. Don't expect to see three-year bachelor's or one-year master's from US universities any time soon. A few institutions may experiment with these, but mass adoption is not on the cards given the amount of money generated from tuition and fees and also some very powerful philosophical tenets about graduate education.

Variations in traditions and history among global higher education systems create myriad perceptions of the experience and the ideal. Many Europeans are astounded by the amount of money that US students pay for higher education. They find it inconceivable that the richest country on the planet does not provide its citizens with free higher education. But the point is that different systems have evolved in different countries and that making direct comparisons is often complex, enigmatic and foreign to many outside a particular system.

Clearly the length of a master's degree is determined by several factors - national and cultural variations, competition and the search for market advantage, financial concerns and quality considerations. Some would argue that the differences between institutions are primarily self-serving rather than motivated by desire to provide a qualitatively superior graduate experience for the student. So, what club do we hit on this academic course?

Having pondered the conditions, I offer the following premise to consider: the length of a master's degree is inextricably tied to course quality, and shorter master's degrees detract disproportionately from the quality of the programme, the academic experience and skills mastered by students, and the long-term sustainability and reputation of the programme.

Do I have your attention? Good. Now, you may ask, how am I going to defend this premise?

Let's start with the basic philosophical tenets of graduate education. Again, there is considerable variation across higher education systems, and I plead guilty to having received my graduate degrees in America. As such, I'll use this as the baseline for my arguments to engage those outside the US in constructive dialogue, not as a strategy to win the match. Moreover, my obligation as an educator is to provide an objective, fair assessment of this issue devoid of an Anglo-American justification for my points. I will make every effort to articulate my commentary in simple language that is clear and comprehensible to even the novice golfer and academic.

At its core, a master's degree is an empirical and scholarly degree. This means that despite a student's participation and engagement in graduate seminars, internships, special projects, collaborative learning and small-group analysis, the purpose is to teach the fundamental aspects of scholarly and empirical research, critical analysis and synthesis, and objective interpretation of the research process, methodology, results and conclusions.

Moreover, these essential skills are prerequisites for analysing and interpreting other scholarly research as a member of one's profession. Without the fundamentals, one cannot objectively assess, comment on and learn from other research. As such, this sounds like golf, in which poor fundamentals equal poor results (don't just take my word, greats such as Jack Nicklaus, Annika Sorenstam, Nancy Lopez, Phil Mickelson, Sir Nick Faldo and Tony Jacklin all say the same).

Most graduates do not follow research careers. Recognising this fact, US universities during the past 15 years have increasingly added a "research project" option as an alternative to the traditional master's thesis (research). (In the US, the term "dissertation" is reserved solely for the doctoral research component.) The research project at the master's level, although grounded in basic research methodology, tends to be more focused on practical applications and looks more like applied research than a typical master's thesis model.

It is important to recognise that the focus on research is designed to enhance rather than minimise the other components of a master's degree. The rationale is that participation in seminars, collaborative presentations, constructive dialogue with faculty and student peers, internship experiences and so on are more meaningful when coupled with and informed by the acquisition of research skills, knowledge and expertise.

Another essential component of the master's degree is "enlightenment". Golfers may be acquainted with this from the axiom that most amateurs hit the ball farther when they swing easier. Unfortunately, they usually have to hit their first ball out of bounds to discover this eternal truth when hitting their second ball (third stroke) off the tee. Why? It is not because velocity is not related to distance, of course it is. It is because most amateurs can maintain a more consistent and effective motion by swinging the golf club slower.

The enlightenment aspect of the master's degree is helping students to see the interconnected and multidisciplinary nature of knowledge. When I was an undergraduate, my European history mentor would seldom discuss the more intricate political aspects of historical events and trends. When I asked him if he could do this, he suggested that I enrol with another professor for her European political systems course.

I offer this anecdote not as a criticism of undergraduate education, but rather to show that the organisational principle of pre-21st-century universities was to segregate knowledge in academic departments and disciplines. I call this the "everyone's an expert complex".

We are starting to see more interdisciplinary approaches at the undergraduate and graduate levels, which are benefiting staff as well as students in their research and teaching.

This philosophical basis of graduate education plays out in a number of important ways that bring us back to the "length" controversy. I would like to explore them in the context of comparing a one-year versus a two-year master's degree.

In considering what we want graduate students to gain, we cannot ignore academic preparation. Many graduate disciplines admit students who were not required to major in that discipline as an undergraduate. Because such students enter a graduate programme with minimal knowledge and content expertise, they must simultaneously learn the discipline and the research process. Once again, this is not a criticism but is framed within the context of awarding a one-year master's degree. If the aim is student mastery at the graduate level of research knowledge and skills to a specific discipline, this goal will be difficult for even the most talented students to meet in one year.

On a master's programme, students are learning their scholarly craft, and as we all know practice makes perfect (actually if it were possible, perfect practice makes perfect, but these notable quotes make good folklore). However, if we subscribe to the premise that mastery of the fundamentals is essential to high-quality performance over the long term, then the research and golf analogy returns. The best golfers all have sound fundamentals, spend endless time and effort returning to these first principles when their game is in trouble, and will tell you that when they first learned the game (the right way), they spent years honing these basic skills.

We want graduate students to reach the top level, but can this happen when we expect them to master the fundamentals of the research process in the briefest time possible while they are also learning about their discipline and the interdisciplinary connectedness of knowledge?

Those seeking mastery of a skill or craft will know that practice improves quality, which in turn means improved performance. If we provide the graduate student with the time to master research skills, integrate discipline and interdisciplinary knowledge, reflect on practice and research within and outside the discipline, collaborate with peers and faculty, we will produce a graduate with a sound set of skills and knowledge that will enhance long-term performance in their profession.

At this point, the reader may be tempted to conclude that I must believe that the only reasonable thing to do is to banish one-year master's degrees from the face of higher education for eternity. This, however, is not my aim. Why? Because good graduate education also provides students with one more important life-essential lesson - there are few either/or answers to important questions. As H.L. Mencken stated: "There is always an easy solution to every human problem - neat, plausible, and wrong."

What I argue is that the most appropriate length for modern master's degrees is inextricably tied to the philosophical basis of graduate education and the primacy of the empirical and scholarly research process. If for any unknown reason I missed the memo announcing that we have dispensed with the essential components of graduate education, I apologise and will calmly take a two-stroke penalty and become an advocate for six-month master's degrees. Moreover, if we can cut the undergraduate degree to two years and doctoral study to one year, then we could begin producing PhDs in three-and-a-half years. Indeed, this would certainly serve the higher education sector and planet more effectively for the duration ... or would it? Illusions of progress are often our greatest barrier to true advancement.

In the final analysis, I have great confidence that the global higher education community understands the complexity of these issues and will respond with prudence, humility, insight, innovation and with a greater awareness of the competitive advantage argument in concert with the tenets that contribute to high-quality graduate education.

Given the absence of either/or answers at our local clubhouse, I suspect that the optimum length of the master's degree probably falls somewhere between 15 and 24 months. That's a rather short period of time considering that the world's best golfers spend years simply learning the fundamentals of their profession. There will, of course, be extreme pressures for universities to offer accelerated programmes at all levels in response to financial necessity and to the competitive forces impinging on higher education. For now, I'm going to presume that the aforementioned memo dispensing with the historical tenets that underpin high-quality graduate education, while perhaps written, has not been sent.

What is certain is that the next player to top the leader board after navigating the course at Augusta National Golf Club and emerge as the Masters champion will undoubtedly be one with sound fundamentals that hold up under the most extreme pressures of his sport. Indeed, successful golfers are inherently better researchers than researchers are golfers. Perhaps this will not go unnoticed by graduate educators across the globe next April - even though they won't get to slip on a green jacket at the end of the day.

MANY MASTER'S CAUSE CONFUSION: How the UK matches up with the rest of Europe, or not

Mention a "master's degree" in the UK and you could be talking about a nine- or 12-month postgraduate degree, a taught or research postgraduate degree, an undergraduate degree in a science or mathematical subject, or an honorary title bought by Oxbridge graduates.

The picture is a little clearer in the rest of Europe, after the drive to harmonise education systems through the Bologna Process and create a common bachelor's, master's, doctorate cycle of uniform length.

Overall, the UK is different from continental Europe in terms of master's provision. While a master's has generally become a two-year postgraduate course in the rest of Europe under the Bologna Process and the undergraduate master's phased out, the UK has been able to persist with its one-year postgraduate master's, arguing that the greater intensity of such courses gives them equivalent value to longer ones.

So what does a UK master's degree mean to students, universities and employers?

In September 2009, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) launched a consultation on a draft document called Master's Degree Characteristics, which is intended to offer "a framework that higher education providers can use in describing the nature of the master's degrees they offer".

On the purpose of master's programmes, the document says universities may offer the courses to allow students to focus on a particular area of study they have previously encountered, to learn how to conduct research, to undertake a particular research project, or to become specialised in a field of knowledge related to a profession.

The document goes on to say that master's degrees may be one year or two years in length; they may be modular; they may be delivered partly through an employment setting; they may be delivered as part of a four-year course that includes a bachelor's degree; they may even be delivered through a four-year integrated programme that includes a doctorate.

If that leaves you confused, the UK Council for Graduate Education (UKCGE) sympathises.

In a submission to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills' review of postgraduate provision, the UKCGE says: "The use of the title 'master's' across the sector is currently in a confused and confusing state."

It outlines three broad uses of the term: postgraduate (taught and research), undergraduate and honorary (at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, graduates can convert their bachelor's degrees into master's for a small fee).

Malcolm McCrae, chair of the UKCGE, says: "It is confusing for employers. It is confusing for students coming from outside the UK. What is it they are buying into?"

The UKCGE suggests adding prefixes to denote whether a master's is undergraduate, postgraduate or honorary.

But does the UK's system of one-year courses mean lower-quality qualifications?

McCrae says there is a strong argument that "the intensity is at a higher level for a shorter period of time, and that the overall amount of time of learning is roughly equal (to that of longer courses). You have to be careful about equating length with quality if you don't take any account of intensity."

Comparing the UK with the US, he says longer master's may be the norm across the Atlantic because students "come off the back of undergraduate degrees that are less specialised than is the case in the UK".

When the Bologna Process began, some feared that the UK would be forced to adopt the two-year postgraduate master's courses common in the rest of Europe. But the UK HE Europe Unit, funded by Universities UK, the QAA and the funding councils, was among those to argue successfully that one-year courses could be accommodated.

Paul Dowling, policy officer at the unit, says: "It is probably true that the two-year master's degree is more popular and widespread across European institutions. There would have been some nervousness in the UK, asking whether we are more lightweight. But that debate has eased with the recognition that master's can be designed for different things."

A master's degree must have between 90 and 120 credits under the European Credit Transfer System, with the UK's one-year courses valued at 90 credits.

Dowling adds that the emphasis is on learning outcomes under this system. "It is not about the time studied; it is about what a student can do at the end of it."

Howard Davies, HE consultant, and former UK Bologna Expert, wrote Survey of Master Degrees in Europe for the European University Association in 2009.

In it, he argues that the master's is still not "readable" across all 47 countries involved in the Bologna Process. To make it easier for students and others to see what a master's offers, he believes that at-a-glance markers should be developed to identify factors such as duration, credit value, any professional accreditation and whether work placements are included.

He also notes "the problem of nomenclature", which means there is "only limited pan-European understanding of how different master's stand in relation to each other". And distinctions made to clarify matters at national level could further hinder transparency at European level, he warns.

Davies identifies three types of master's provision: taught courses with professional development application; research-intensive courses often functioning as pre-doctoral courses; and courses delivered mainly to returning learners.

He says in the report that master's courses have "a crucial role to play in the knowledge society", offering a foundation for doctoral research and the development of "human capital in many fields". All of which means the courses should be accessible "by as many persons as possible".

But Davies adds that of the three Bologna cycles, the master's is the most "marketised", with fees for the courses often very high.

To assume that master's courses "will thrive on competition alone is incautious", he says, urging that it is "time to consider issues of student finance and equal opportunity of access".

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