Oxbridge defends its MAs against the modernisers

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FOR CENTURIES the title Master of Arts has marked out scholars from two of the world's oldest universities.

Some of the most distinguished thinkers have graduated from Oxford and Cambridge and placed the coveted letters MA after their names.

But yesterday the dons of Oxbridge launched a quiet, but firm defence of their traditions against the forces of modernisation and reform in higher education after it emerged university watchdogs were considering whether the degree should have a place in the modern world.

The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), the body set up to oversee academic standards, has launched a review of degree titles in the hope of ending the confusion over the huge number of different awards made by universities.

Many academics regard the MA degrees from the two universities as a misleading anomaly, because they are granted automatically to Bachelor of Arts graduates without any extra work. At all other universities, students can only earn the Master of Arts title after a year's postgraduate study.

Yesterday Oxbridge dons defended their age-old practices.

A spokesman for Oxford, which grants an MA to any graduate who pays a pounds 10 fee 21 terms after they are awarded their BA, said it was all a question of tradition.

He said: "It's something which is part of our heritage and dates back to the earliest years of the university when scholars studied for seven years.

"We think most people know what the Oxbridge MAs are, and there's no attempt to pretend that it's something that it is not."

A Cambridge spokesman added: "There's no harm in having a review, but it would need to consider for example whether a PhD, Doctor of Philosophy, is appropriate because PhDs are awarded to people who do not study philosophy."

The QAA has already come under fire from some academics who fear setting standards for universities will impose a national curriculum for higher education.

A spokeswoman for the QAA played down the review.

She said: "The QAA has no powers to change the descriptions of awards, although we would hope to move things forward. We are trying to put them into some national framework, so that the university sector and the public can easily see what awards mean.

"Institutions are all autonomous, so we have to find a consensus."