Masters scandal

February 11, 2000

The sector should share the chagrin of Sir Graeme Davies in view of the Quality Assurance Agency's scandalous and arbitrary decision on the award of Scottish masters degrees (Why II,THES, February 4). Standards and quality are not achieved by mere fiat, and they may not be assessed or assured by simple proclamation. The QAA cannot question an institution's right to award degrees without "examining them properly".

There are those who believe that one year of essentially undergraduate teaching can magically lift a bachelor of one discipline to the level of learning achieved in four years by a student of another, quite different, discipline.

But why engage in unseemly public bickering when we can apply method and evidence to secure a genuine basis for removing an illegitimate claim to high-level study and assessment? The solution is relatively straightforward, if, inevitably, initially costly.

A sample of examined work from the top, middle and bottom of the range offered for each masters degree, together with similar samples of the second (or third in Scotland) and final undergraduate year examples from each institution, is sent for anonymous marking to QAA-appointed examiners. The moderation of the marks awarded and the determination of the level of the work should be blind, in the sense that the QAA but not the examiners will be aware of the original institution, level and mark of the work. It is essential that dissertations/projects form part of the sample because these represent the final determination of depth in serious postgraduate studies.

The results should be published and institutions must abandon schemes where the "masters-level" work is below the level required for studies above final-year undergraduate schemes.

The cost of this exercise can hardly be measured against the enormous benefit to the sector in terms of establishing comparability, and thus real assurance, in the standing of these degrees here and abroad.

Andrew J. Morgan Swansea

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