Master's Degrees (Minimum Standards)

Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the House of Commons at 3:58 pm on 15th February 2011.

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Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Shadow Minister (Treasury) 4:02 pm, 15th February 2011

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit universities awarding Master's degrees unless certain standards of study and assessment are met;
and for connected purposes.

It is assumed in our society that hard work, ability and merit are the determining characteristics necessary to obtain academic qualifications, yet there is a glaring anomaly in our system of higher education, which undermines the value of postgraduate credentials: the byzantine practice whereby Oxford and Cambridge universities award a complimentary master of arts degree to anyone who has graduated with a bachelor's degree from their institutions. I say "complimentary", but I understand that Oxford colleges often charge a £10 administration fee. In those cases, people's BA(Hons) are automatically upgraded to MA(Oxon).

While most postgraduate students who hope to obtain an MA must undergo at least a year's study, have their abilities tested by examination and pay significant tuition fees, often around £4,500, graduates who attend Oxford and Cambridge can automatically convert their bachelor's degree into an MA, regardless of academic merit.

That is not only unfair to the 200,000 students who get their MA the hard way, but fundamentally undermines the integrity of the MA marque. Worse, apparently 62% of employers when surveyed reported that they thought that the MA(Oxon) or MA(Cantab) were genuinely earned postgraduate qualifications.

Eleven years ago, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education said:

"The Masters title causes much misunderstanding... most employers think it always represents an award for postgraduate study."

There is no logical or justifiable defence of that historical anachronism, which grew out of ancient circumstances that have long been irrelevant to modern academic practice. To preserve the MA's academic integrity, it is time to discontinue Oxbridge colleges' ability to award unearned qualifications that can so easily cause confusion. That is why my short Bill would prohibit granting master's degrees unless certain minimum academic standards are attained.

Let me be absolutely clear at the outset that I do not blame Oxbridge graduates for taking the opportunity presented to them on a plate-it would be nice if we all received a similar offer. The problem is that that outdated and unfair practice reinforces the suspicions of many of the privileges and advantages bestowed on a small number of very fortunate people, often at the expense of everyone else. For example, in my role before entering Parliament, when sifting job applications and hiring for research positions, I would often see CVs citing that master's degree brand. Presumably, would-be employers are frequently superficially impressed by what appears to be a mark of high academic distinction.

It is not just me who objects to the practice; The Daily Telegraph reported last year that Cambridge academics are beginning to feel distinctly queasy about the situation. Dr Neil Dodgson, a computer academic at Cambridge, said:

"Many find it offensive that we should award a degree for doing nothing more than being able to breathe for three years...It is only a matter of time before our MA spawns a PR disaster. Perhaps it is time for us to acknowledge that the rest of the world has moved on, and to align ourselves, reluctantly, with a world that believes that a degree should only be awarded for academic achievement."

Surprisingly, the issue has rarely been aired in Parliament or more widely, and yet the practice is a wrong that the stewards of those great universities could and should put right themselves. I genuinely hope that the new vice-chancellor of Cambridge university will take a more enlightened approach than his predecessor, who famously said that

"universities are not engines for promoting social justice".

I recently surveyed some of my constituents and received some interesting replies. One woman replied:

"I didn't realise that the fortunate graduates of Oxbridge could obtain an MA by simply sending in an admin fee! My son worked hard for 2 yrs for his MA".

Another wrote:

"Thanks for informing me about the £10 MA from Oxford and Cambridge! If this is true, then it's really too much. My husband (UCL) told me that he didn't think this was the case. Please confirm. I had no idea. I will tell my 23-year-old who did his masters the long way!"

Another said:

"As someone who is studying for a postgraduate diploma I do feel it is unfair that this might be the case", and yet another told me:

"It only reinforces the privileged position that these two universities hold in our society...only academic achievement should enable any qualification at university and not the equivalent of a round of drinks."

Some will say, "Everybody knows that it's not really a master's degree," but clearly, the survey information and what I have learned from asking around show that most people are oblivious to the small print on the Cambridge website or the statement in the QAA literature. Others will say, "Oxbridge graduates work harder and have higher abilities, and the MA reflects that." Notwithstanding the fact that that argument is usually made by those who attended Oxford or Cambridge, such an attitude is obviously insulting to the other 100 universities in the UK, which have fine academic records.

Many will say, "This is just the politics of envy, and you are just jealous." Perhaps people who want access to such unearned privileges are envious, but others who object to the practice just want a fair system based on real rather than fake merit. Others will say, "Well, this whole thing is not to be taken seriously. There are far higher priorities for reform." It is true that there are far bigger questions, including what is happening to tuition fees, but the Bill is one small step to rectify a simple problem, which it will achieve-crucially-at absolutely no cost. Anyway, if it is such a petty issue, surely nobody will object to ending the practice.

We need the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to recognise that it is time that masters' degrees represented postgraduate study. We need Oxford and Cambridge to consider the situation themselves, and I shall write to them to urge them to do so. Finally, we need legislation to uphold the integrity of what should be the finest British traditions of fair play and achievement-on-merit in our higher education institutions.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster 4:09 pm, 15th February 2011

I must confess that the spirited call of Chris Leslie is a reprise of a perennial squabble that I have had with my brother over the past two decades or so. Like the hon. Gentleman, my brother took a master's degree that involved two years of postgraduate study, while I qualified-if that is the right word-for my MA as a result of gaining a degree from Oxford university. My college, St Edmund Hall, has a history dating back to 1278. At that juncture, the requirement was to surpass 21 terms after matriculation before qualifying for a master's degree, having taken a bachelor's degree prior to that. That topping-up arrangement applied happily-dare I say it-for more than six centuries, before Leeds university was even founded let alone started handing out degrees of its own to deserving, and perhaps some slightly less deserving, candidates. Perhaps it is the other universities that should change their role to take account of the history of Oxford and Cambridge, which have established a well-set path of 21 terms post-matriculation by which someone qualifies for a master's degree.

There is a more serious point about what the hon. Gentleman has said. Our elite universities are now global brands. They should not sit back and take ever more Government interference. Only last week, a proposal was made by the Deputy Prime Minister of the coalition Government to give ever more powers to the access regulator. If he has his way, in future universities will be banned from charging higher levels of tuition fees unless they adhere to fixed Government quotas on admissions. In my view, this is all wrong. The hon. Member for Nottingham East and his proposal are, I am afraid, part of that same muddled thinking. Our excellent and elitist universities do not need any more interference in their governance. Otherwise, I fear that we run the risk of some of our best institutions deciding before too long to go private. I am thinking not just of Oxford and Cambridge, but of the London of School of Economics and Imperial college-to name but two-in my constituency. We should be proud of the finest of our traditions in the higher education sphere. It is one of the relatively few areas in which we have a global leadership, and my fear is that ever more Government interference-of the sort articulated by the Bill-will lead to a diminution of that excellence and elitism. If that is the case, we will all suffer.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission

Order. The right hon. and learned Gentleman would expect me to know, or at least to check to ensure that I know, the procedure. I love nothing more than to hear him talk, but I am afraid that I am allowed to call only two Members to speak in a situation of this kind.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Chris Leslie, Nic Dakin, Kerry McCarthy, Helen Jones, Cathy Jamieson, Bob Russell, Mr Mike Hancock, Philip Davies, John Cryer and Mr Dennis Skinner present the Bill.

Chris Leslie accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 18 March , and to be printed (Bill 148).

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Liberal Democrat, North East Fife

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Your responsibility extends, of course, to giving advice to those who might not be quite as familiar as yourself with the procedures of the House. I should perhaps declare an interest as the chancellor of the university of St Andrews and as the holder of a master of arts degree from Glasgow university. How could I find an opportunity to put it on the record that the first degree in the ancient Scottish universities is an MA?

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission

As the right hon. and learned Gentleman well knows, he has just done precisely that, and with a skill that might be of interest to new Members who might benefit from it. I appreciate the good grace with which he accepted the selection of speakers on this occasion. I apologise to him for having momentarily forgotten about that high office that he holds, but I am not likely to do so again.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Conservative, New Forest East

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In the light of the fascinating short debate we have just had, are you in a position to inform the House whether the practice of making right hon. and hon. Members who happen to be lawyers honorary Queen's counsels is still in existence?

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission

I am not sure that I can inform the House on any aspect of that matter. However, as the hon. Gentleman will know-I cannot imagine that he is referring to any particular Member-it is not within my bailiwick. I think that we had better leave it there.