Wednesday, 3 June 2009

What is a master's degree?

The question has been raised again - what is a master's degree and, most vexing of all where should the apostrophe go? Should there be one and does it matter?

In the late 12 century, King Henry II resettled troublesome students from Paris in England. He decided that they should be a horse's ride from London and a ford over the River Ox emerged as the centre for their riotous living. The early Oxford settlements were in the form of lodging houses where a master of the house taught the young men (the bachelors) and hence the term master's degree became part of the academic language. Young initiates into the academic life were in their turn taught by the master's pupils and this was the early bachelor's degree. Simple really.

The early master's degree became degraded over the centuries (nothing new there) and by the 20th Century could be obtained at Oxford and Cambridge by turning up at College and dining with the masters on half a dozen occasions. After attacking the Dover sole, quaffing the port and demonstrating a childish delight in hurling food around the room the higher degree would be awarded. Although few at Oxford would consider the newer institutions like Bristol, Durham or, indeed, those founded in the colonies as universities, other universities treated the master's degree more seriously. It was expected that students - postgrads as they became known - would be expected to work for their qualification. This rather disgraceful practice completely undermined the purpose of the degree which was to be able to demonstrate an ability to think rather than to learn stuff.

In 1992, the UK government hit upon an idea for expanding university level provision. They made any institution who taught above primary school level a university. This had the effect of debasing the currency as entrepreneurial academic managers hit upon the idea of selling degrees either directly or through franchise to anyone who would buy them. They discovered a rich market particularly at the postgraduate level. The variety of masters degrees expanded as the new universities discovered a particularly innovative way of milking the academic cow - reduce the output standard of the bachelor's degree and sell a master's degree as an additional academic bauble on top. What's more, if someone proved willing to pay and was over the age of 18 why not let them take a master's degree without the inconvenience of undertaking a bachelor's degree first? This, to maintain a fig-leaf of respectability, could be achieved through a process known as the 'accreditation of prior learning' (APL - basic ability to read without tracing the words with the index finger) or the 'accreditation of prior experience' (APE), in this case, would count as having held down a job for at least six weeks (including holidays).

So, the standard of the typical master's degree, which was never very high, plummeted as universities set their sights on relieving anyone who came near them of cash rather than imparting anything new. However, there have been hounorable exceptions - some universities have seen them as an important qualification allowing the student to acquire a high level of mastery of their specialist subject topped off by a short piece of original work in the form of a dissertation. Other's have been seen as graduate level conversion courses - the MBA being the most important example - and others are regarded as ways of stripping (mostly) overseas students of their cash.

So what before the incursion of that German invention, the PhD, in the 1880's was the premier academic qualification has now become a commodity qualification. Some universities still insist on setting the highest academic standards, some universities insist on the lowest academic standards - I suppose this is what one calls product differentiation. However, for those of us trying to make sense of all of this, it isn't easy to decide what is the right level to teach at or to pass judgement in the role of external examiner.

Anyway....what about the apostrophe? If it is a degree given by a master (singular) then before the 's', if it is a degree given by masters (plural) then after the 's'. History does not give any guidance on what is correct.


Anonymous said...

Never thought of master's (?) from this perspective before. Interesting...
Big day for ACCA P4 students today. Wish us luck!

cjard said...

"Some universities still insist on setting the highest acadermic standards, some universities insist on the lowest acdemic standards"


Very amusing article.. I can't help but wonder though: Which standard were you? Acadermic[sic] or acdemic[sic] :)