End Oxbridge MAs scam

August 14, 1998

I was pleased to see your story "Oxbridge MAs in danger" (THES, August 7). As someone who spent ten years in Cambridge, and who has one of these "degrees", I have long believed the system to be a scandal.

As an undergraduate I had resolved never to buy an MA, only to find that my borrowing rights from Cambridge's library would be enhanced considerably if I paid for it. I regarded Pounds 5 or so as a sum worth paying to take many more books out of the library. As a result, I have a Cambridge MA.

I teach the MA in English local history at Leicester University. Full-time students of all ages spend a full year working for this degree, part-time students work over two years for it. They have to attend many long lectures and seminars, Saturday schools and a week-long field-course; complete a range of projects, review articles and a field course report; undertake skills tests and a 20,0000-word research dissertation, and so on. Full-time fees for home students are about Pounds 2,500 a year, and there are many personal costs such as travel, subsistence and lost earnings. When they have done all of the work and passed all of the elements, they obtain an MA, of which they are justly proud.

Some students notice an MA after my name on university staff lists. They ask where I got it and what subject it was in. I reply, "It's not a real MA - just the Cambridge one that I paid about Pounds 5 for." Their faces usually register blank astonishment.

Given the modern context of higher education degrees, the need for comparability and the realities of the job market, I regard as complete bunk any arguments of Oxbridge historical precedent and of Oxbridge people being superior and thus warranting such a degree. I am reminded of an American scholar in Cambridge in the mid-1970s, complaining bitterly that a senior librarian had just said that her Yale PhD was worth less than his Cambridge MA.

As a former student of Trinity Hall and a research fellow from King's College, I am ashamed of the Oxbridge MA system. This is an inequitable degree, masquerading as equal to properly earned MA degrees elsewhere. It brings Oxbridge into disrepute. The purchase of degrees is a scandal in any form; but when it is done with a self-important air of assumed personal superiority it becomes contemptible. There are many things that need reforming in Oxbridge, but this is certainly top of the list.

K. D. M. Snell Department of Englishlocal history University of Leicester

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