OXBRIDGE graduates may lose their automatic right to a master of arts degree under plans being considered by a qualifications working party.
Special arrangements by which bachelors of arts from Oxford and Cambridge universities can receive an MA after waiting a few years, with no extra work, have come under the scrutiny of a group set up by the new Quality Assurance Agency.
The qualifications framework development group, due to make initial recommendations in the autumn, aims to clear up confusion over the names and levels of postgraduate qualifications.
Its chairman, Ivor Crewe, vice-chancellor of the University of Essex and an Oxford MA himself, said automatic entitlement to an MA appeared to be a clear anomaly and needed to be reassessed. "the Oxbridge MA is one of the things we are considering. Nomenclature and abbreviations for postgraduate qualifications must indicate one, and only one, level of difficulty."
Also under consideration are degrees such as MEngs, which generally count as undergraduate degrees although they take four years, and the plethora of certificates and diplomas now available to postgraduates.
MPhils, which generally take longer and are more research-based than other masters qualifications, will also be examined.
Tim O'Shea, master of Birkbeck College and a member of the committee, said a clear vocabulary for qualifications would make it easier to have diversity within the system.
Of the Oxbridge MA, he said: "There is something fairly odd there that is an issue. Maybe they can get away with saying they are so famous that an MA is not what people in the rest of England and Wales say it is. But that is not particularly helpful, especially if people are going to move from one institution to another."
John Grey, general secretary of the National Postgraduate Committee, said:
"Obviously the Oxbridge MA has no extra work in it and we take the view that it is a qualification that shouldn't really exist. The whole business of trying to resolve postgraduate qualifications is to be welcomed."
Neither Oxford nor Cambridge is considering changes to its system of awarding MAs. At Oxford, students are entitled to the award 21 terms after matriculation on payment of Pounds 10. Cambridge graduates must wait at least six years after the end of their first term and two years after becoming a BA.
A Cambridge University spokesman said: "It would be inappropriate to regard it as a postgraduate qualification because that is not what it is.
"I see no reason whatsoever to look into it. The MAs current in Oxford and Cambridge and in some Scottish institutions have been in use a lot longer than the postgraduate MA system, which came originally from America."
The QAA set up a steering group to clear up confusion over the names and levels of postgraduate qualifications following a review two years ago by Martin Harris, vice-chancellor of Manchester University and now chairman of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals.
The QAA development group is building on this work, together with recommendations from the Dearing inquiry and information on systems abroad.
It will make recommendations on postgraduate qualifications in October and recommendations on the honours degree next spring.
No changes are expected to be implemented before 2001.