Cambridge asks questions of its many masters

Report citing the lack of common degree standards sparks a wider debate. Melanie Newman reports.

February 7, 2008

A lack of consistency in the marking of University of Cambridge masters degrees has been highlighted by the university's own advisory board on educational policy.

"Diverse marking schemes make it difficult for employers (and) funding bodies ... to assess Cambridge graduates when the marks in transcripts have dissimilar meanings," says a General Board report on graduate education published last year. The document also cautions that the university offers too wide a variety of postgraduate courses.

The report has sparked a wider debate about the autonomy of individual departments at the university to set their own programmes and the numbers of lucrative postgraduates the institution recruits.

The MPhil scheme alone, which is one of six types of masters degrees available, encompasses both "thesis-only" and 100 per cent taught courses. In the marking schemes of three current MPhil programmes, 55 can mean a comfortable pass, a marginal pass or a fail.

The report warns that there is too wide a variety of courses on offer, but it highlights the lack of a degree providing research training as a precursor to a PhD.

"The status quo, on a wide variety of fronts, will not serve the university well in the future", it concludes.

MPhil teaching and examining arrangements should be standardised, the report says. It also suggests merging some types of degree while establishing a new MRes "research training" course.

Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at Cambridge, said concern over masters courses was "overdone" and suggested that a large and ever-changing menu of masters degrees was a good thing. "The world keeps on changing, so we keep on changing our offerings," he said.

He warned against centralisation. "We do very well as a decentralised institution where departments and colleges do their own thing. Rushing to centralise just because some tiny departments occasionally screw up would be throwing out the baby with the bathwater," he said.

Graduate students are lucrative, and their numbers are rising. The General Board report notes that colleges' capacity for admitting postgraduates might be reached "sooner rather than later". It recommends exploring "differing categories of college membership and fee levels ... as a means of lifting the likely barrier to further student number growth".

Commenting on the report in The Oxford Magazine, David Abulafia, professor of Mediterranean history at Cambridge, said: "The real worry is that we are becoming a factory for masters degrees. We are admitting folk with decent 2:1s who have no realistic hope of an academic career but hanker after a PhD."

He added: "We really mustn't appear to be selling masters degrees."

A spokesman for Cambridge said that the report, passed by the university in July 2007, had identified variation in pass marks, but added: "The Board of Graduate Studies has been addressing this issue, and we are confident that we award MPhil degrees at an appropriate level across subjects."

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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