Monday, 10 August 2009

MA is the new BA

Lunching last week with a young external member of one of my teams, he remarked that his firm were no longer taking graduates with only a first degree; not until entrants had gained their master's did the firm find they had the requisite skills to make good professional employees. It was a purely economic decision.

Back in my day, only some one in twenty of us went on to university. I suppose the number of young people taking their master's must now be something in this region, and that holders of MAs and MScs now fill the posts that BAs and BScs did then. Like poverty, academic attainment is relative, not absolute.

A throw-away comment from Rees-Mogg in the Mail that ten history undergraduates at a leading university were between them unable to name a single nineteenth century Prime Minister is profoundly depressing. I'd have imagined that most people would have got Gladstone and Disraeli, many could have named Salisbury or Melbourne, and a few would have known Pitt, Wellington, Grenville, Portland, the unfortunate Spencer-Percival, Liverpool, Canning, Goderich, Grey, Peel, Russell, Derby, Aberdeen, Pam or Rosebury. That they are more familiar with Hess, Goering, Himmler and Goebels points to a profound failing in our education system.


Blue Eyes said...

I think firms which have a strict degree criterion are foolish. What has happened is that it is no longer possible to judge the calibre of a candidate by his first degree, leaving the old 2.1 or first hurdle meaningless. That doesn't mean that everyone who doesn't have a masters is useless, though.

Anonymous said...

The imposition of fees meant that university places went to those who could pay, not to those who could do the work. What happens next is simple enough: the undergraduate workload has to be reduced both in quantity and in complexity so it is suitable for the new less-than-brilliant entrants.

Then you must also take into account the low quality of teaching in secondary schools (even in some private institutions, sad to say) where "teaching" has devolved into "rote memorisation with an eye to the exam". New undergraduates, even if they have a natural intellectual talent, often arrive lacking in basic literacy and numeracy. This means that universities need to provide great quantities of remedial education for these people - in effect, a Russell Group institution, supposedly the peak of this country's higher education and the envy of the world, will have to explain to their new undergraduates how to spell and employ basic grammar. (You cannot understand how soul-destroying this is until you have had to teach literature students at one of the top five universities in the country the difference between a noun and a verb.)

Predictably, since the undergraduate degree cannot impart the knowledge it used to and since schools are no longer even attempting to impart basic skills, the Masters degree becomes the new undergraduate degree. The British doctorate, naturally, devolves to something akin to its pitiful American counterpart.

Right now, the situation can be saved if schools start teaching again and if universities impose rigorous academic conditions (and, needless to say, if we can once again recruit students on grounds of merit rather than of money). In five years, the situation will be beyond salvation.

As an anecdote, after complaining excessively about my own medieval university, I recently visited a proud old English red brick. I expected to find conditions were much of a muchness with my own. They were not. They were worse. They were much, much worse with undergraduates who could not understand basic vocabulary, who didn't understand the idea of reading a book on their own, who thought - and were vocal in expessing their thoughts - that a lecture was meant to provide them with the answers (which they would write down and repeat in exams), who thought that a lecturer who posed questions in seminars was necessarily a bully who enjoyed tormenting them for their ignorance (instead of, for example, wanting to stimulate discussion and seek their opinions).

The situation is salvageable right now but the window is closing and it will soon be impossible to set things to right, even if the will exists. The question becomes: how committed are the Conservatives to fixing the mess Labour has made of higher education? Do they have the testicular fortitude to tear down Labour's mountain of error and put things back as they were? I hope, but I don't expect much.

Yokel said...

To think how proud we were in British universities (when I was attending one in the late 60s); proud that our Bachelors degrees were worth something, unlike the US where even the dustmen had BAs!

I think I will apply to have my degree re-graded as an MSc.

electro-kevin said...

Batchellor degrees are the new A levels.

I've known quite a few train drivers with degrees in my time. 3 have MAs. Two train guards at my depot have degrees: English Lit and Archaeology.

Anonymous said...


It's nice that you know three train drivers with MAs. Hopefully they know how to spell the word "bachelor" correctly.

Calfy said...

Gosh, I am utterly shocked by the C19th PM failing. I have very little yen to go to University; I could apply or go this year, but it doesn't seem to be doing any of my friends much good. I applied for a place reading Classics at Oxford and was the only one at that college who could read anything in Latin and wasn't expecting to take a foundation year in Greek.

Anonymous said...


Spending a year on an introductory course in Latin or Greek has been pretty standard at Oxford since the 1970s. It's surpassingly rare for anyone to do both languages at school to anything like a tolerable level for entry to university.

Also, if you want a decent college for classics, you shouldn't have applied to Corpus! (j/k)

electro-kevin said...

Anon at 23.12

I hasten that I'm not one of the degree holders. I never use a spell checker either.

Anonymous said...

I hasten that I'm not one of the degree holders.

Ya don't say....

Thud said...

I was one of the first kids from our estate to go to uni....I actually thought I was doing something for my family and my class...silly me.