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QAA to tighten reins on MAs

Universities have damaged British higher education by cashing in on demand for degrees with the masters title, quality chiefs said this week.

Too many masters courses have been set up with too little genuine postgraduate content, or the title bestowed as compensation for failure at a higher level, said the Quality Assurance Agency.

All such awards will be casualties of a new framework establishing explicit criteria to govern higher education awards. It looks set to spell the end of the masters awards automatically awarded to Oxford and Cambridge graduates on payment of a small fee a few years after graduation.

Even the PGCE (postgraduate certificate in education) will have to be renamed, the QAA said, because the use of the word "postgraduate" is misleading.

The framework will group qualifications in six categories. Levels one to four represent undergraduate provision, from certificates of higher education at level one to the honours degree at level four. The ordinary (non-honours) degree sits at level three, where the new foundation degree will also probably sit. Postgraduate study equates to level five, representing masters-level study. PhD-level study will fall in level six.

Summaries will be available of the "attributes" expected of the holders of each qualification. For example, an honours graduate "will have developed an understanding of a complex body of knowledge, some of it at the boundaries of current research".

Many masters degrees and other ambiguous qualifications will have to be scrapped, renamed or reformed.

QAA chief executive John Randall said: "The use of the masters title should be limited to qualifications that are genuinely postgraduate level." He singled out "courses offered to graduates that contain only undergraduate material". Mr Randall ruled out the introduction of an additional level between honours and masters degrees.

The QAA said that the new framework was not a "strait-jacket", but that institutions would be expected to ensure that all their awards fitted. The QAA expects the framework to be shaping provision by 2006.

A survey of employers has revealed that:

* Eighty-one per cent found it fairly or very difficult to understand what higher education qualifications mean

* Forty per cent believed that a BA and a BSc are postgraduate qualifications

* Ninety-six per cent want the same qualification title from different institutions to represent the same level of achievement

* Sixty-two per cent thought a Cambridge MA was awarded for postgraduate achievement

* Fifty-one per cent thought that the undergraduate Edinburgh MA was a postgraduate award.

* Just 22 per cent realised that a doctor in business administration (DBA) was a higher qualification than the diploma in higher education (DipHE).

Source: Moulton Hall Market Research

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