Masters do not pass muster

August 20, 2004

Many MAs are little more than a joke, says a holder of two such degrees, one of which was a bargain at £20.

I have long wondered about the point of a masters degree. I'm reminded of a joke told by an American comedian about a student who returns home from college armed with an MA. "Who are you the master of?" his friend asks.

"You ain't the master of me."

In the wake of revelations that British universities are awarding degrees in return for lucrative fees to students who should be failed, I am increasingly of the opinion that the sole raison d'être of masters is to fleece cash off rich foreign and domestic students who don't know better.

I have two masters: one that cost roughly £2,600 (from a reputable redbrick) and another that cost me 20 quid from an Oxbridge college (all it took was a phone call and a cheque). In such circumstances, do these qualifications mean anything?

As a student, I found my MA, for the most part, to be a waste of time. Many of the courses in the brochure were not on offer. Those that were did not interest me. The degree was simply a contraction of a three-year undergraduate degree into one year (minus the survey courses). Many seminars were dull, with many students unwilling to contribute. Some of the teaching was mediocre and downright incompetent, comparing unfavourably with that on my undergraduate degree.

Had I paid for my degree (I didn't, as I was on a fully funded scholarship), I would have been aggrieved, to say the least. Yes, obtaining the degree probably helped, but mainly because I spent it reading beyond the course parameters. Did I really need to enrol on the programme simply to gain a library card and eventually an embossed piece of paper?

My experience as a lecturer has confirmed my suspicions. I have taught on masters degrees for three institutions. The expectations and standards of each are quite different both epistemologically (high-quality intellectual content) and methodologically (the number and length of assignments). The quality of students varies greatly both between and within institutions: some have only undergraduate degrees, others may have postgraduate ones. Is there parity? Are masters consistent across the board? Why do some require 75,000-word essays as assessment and others only 4,000 words?

Given that students can hail from a variety of backgrounds, the high intellectual level the degree should address is often ditched for a teaching strategy that appeals to the lowest common denominator.

Furthermore, a good honours undergraduate degree is considered to count for more than a masters. Some lecturers have gone as far as to say that masters count for very little because there is such pressure on them not to fail students at any cost. It is rare for anyone to fail a masters, except in the most extreme cases of plagiarism. At one institution, both markers failed a piece of work (that would have failed or barely passed at undergraduate level) only for the exam board to raise the grade.

Such actions merely devalue the entire degree. If I were a student and I had learnt that a peer had been passed on the basis of substandard work I would be extremely irritated.

Today's higher education market boasts a bewildering array of products on sale: MEng, MSci, MChem, MPhys, MMath, MESci, Mgeol, MA, MSc, MS, MPhil, MFA, MEd, MTh, MDiv, MBA, MPA, MPAff, MLitt, MPM, MPP, LLM, MStud, MRes, MM, MArch, MLIS, MLS, MIS, MHA, MUP, MURP, MCP, MCRP, MPl, MPH, MSW.

It is an amazing proliferation of letters, and surely no one knows what they all mean. Are they really considered a valuable step towards greater employability within and without universities? Beyond profit-hungry managers, does anybody really value them?

The author is a humanities lecturer at a Russell Group university.

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