Australia’s resurrection of master’s degrees as a PhD pathway is catching on, according to the Sydney institution that pioneered the move.
Macquarie University says its master of research (MRes) degree – a two-year programme of advanced coursework and research training, which students must complete satisfactorily to qualify for doctoral study – has been adopted by Western Sydney University and the University of Wollongong, with more expected to follow suit.
The scheme was a departure from the norm in Australia, where bachelor’s graduates typically need only an honour’s year to gain entry into PhDs. Critics say this leaves doctoral candidates unprepared, and most do not complete within the three-year term of the typical PhD scholarship.
Macquarie said the MRes, introduced in 2013, has halved doctoral attrition rates while cutting the average duration of PhD study from 4.3 years to 3.1 years. Doctoral completions have almost doubled from 297 in 2013 to 556 last year.
Sakkie Pretorius, deputy vice-chancellor (research) at Macquarie, said the MRes was the most significant innovation in Australian research training in the past decade. “I had to deal with the pain of implementing such a big step change, but people now see the benefit – it’s a hugely successful programme for our students and supervisors,” he said.
Professor Pretorius said that while the change had technically increased research degree duration from four to five years, it made little difference in real terms because most students had needed extensions anyway.
He said PhD students who had not entered through the MRes pathway envied the “confidence” of those who had. “They know the topic. They know the literature. They know how to write a thesis.”
MRes students undertake a year of coursework covering integrity, ethics and research methodology, as well as discipline-specific topics. A year of full-time research follows, culminating in a 20,000-word thesis.
Students who achieve marks of at least 75, as judged by external evaluators, are eligible to undertake PhDs. Professor Pretorius said that about two-thirds of MRes graduates progressed to doctoral study.
The remainder are not “failed PhDs”, he stressed, likening the MRes to a UK master of science degree. “People are trained to do research and they have enough wraparound competence in terms of the discipline,” Professor Pretorius said. Students can also leave after one year with bachelor of philosophy credentials.
Professor Pretorius said the MRes had been conceived partly to remove obstacles hampering overseas collaboration. Macquarie works with universities in Europe – where honour’s degrees are rare – through the cotutelle model, under which each PhD student is enrolled in two institutions.
“In order for us to synchronise our academic prerequisites for candidates to enrol in a programme like that, we’ve adopted what is now done in the northern hemisphere, by and large,” he said.
A 2016 report by the Australian Council of Learned Academies lauded “Macquarie model” benefits, including multiple exit pathways, an absence of upfront fees – with the first year funded as a standard honour’s programme and the second under research training arrangements – and alignment with the Bologna model of progression.
Professor Pretorius said that, while many Australian universities wanted to adopt the “Macquarie model”, older institutions would struggle because their typically “devolved” administration meant that single faculties could veto its adoption.
“If they can, they will do it,” he said. “Universities [must] have the political will to manage a change process like that.”
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