An explosion in the number and types of higher education award titles is threatening the national and international currency of the first and postgraduate degree, a study has found.
The creation of awards with titles such as DBA (diploma/doctor of business administration), BLE (bachelor of land economy), MSt (master of studies) and DesD (doctor of design) is causing confusion across the sector and among employers.
Institutions anxious to market courses and qualifications with prestigious-sounding titles have increased by about one-third the number of awards on offer over the past few years.
The result has been "a loss of consistency and inability to inform, particularly about the level of student attainment represented by an award", says a report from the Higher Education Quality Council.
An HEQC research team which looked at awards offered in 11 universities found widespread concerns over ambiguities between different institutions' systems for naming awards.
Of particular concern was the use of the titles "certificate" and "diploma" for awards at all levels from sub-degree through to postgraduate, and the use of the "master" title to signify a wide range of student achievement.
Often marketing was to blame. One university had replaced its MA in fine art with an MFA "to reposition the course for the US market". Institutions were frequently under market pressure to add words such as "business", "management" or "environmental" to the names of awards.
There was "considerable confusion" over the use and meaning of first degree master titles for extended first degrees, and how these related to an honours degree and to a postgraduate master in the same discipline. The issue is further complicated by a growing tendency for first-degree masters to be awarded with classified honours, making it harder to judge where they stand in relation to other awards, such as the traditional masters.
The report, the last in the Graduate Standards Programme series from the HEQC, endorses the recommendations in the Harris review of postgraduate education for a national framework of postgraduate qualifications.
Its findings also helped inform the recommendations of the Dearing committee for a new eight-level national qualifications framework.
But it warns that the research team found some scepticism about the ability of the sector as a whole to bring about change.