In the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Dublin, Bachelors of Arts of these universities are promoted to the degree of Master of Arts or Master in Arts (MA) on application after six or seven years' seniority as members of the university (including years as an undergraduate).
No further examination or study is required for the MA degree beyond that required for the BA. This practice differs from that in most other universities worldwide, for whom the degree reflects further postgraduate study or achievement, and these degrees are sometimes referred to as the Oxbridge MA and Dublin or Trinity MA to differentiate them. The Oxbridge MA is based on the system of academic rank rather than on one of academic qualifications. Once incepted/promoted to MA, the holder no longer wears the academicals or uses the post-nominals pertaining to a Bachelor of Arts as they are no longer of that rank, thus the Master of Arts is not a separate degree given in addition to the Bachelor of Arts but is basically a conversion of one degree to another.
All three universities have other masters' degrees that require further study and examination, but these have other titles, such as Master of Letters (MLitt), Master of Philosophy (MPhil), Master of Studies (MSt), Master of Engineering (MEng) and Master of Science (MSc).
Masters of Arts in the three universities may use the post-nominal letters "MA". Although honours are awarded for the examinations leading to the BA degree, it is incorrect to use the style "MA (Hons)" as there is no examination for the MA degree. The abbreviated name of the university (Oxon., Cantab. or Dubl.) can be appended to the initials "MA" in the same way that it is to other degrees, e.g. "John Smith, MA (Cantab), PhD (Lond)". This is usually done in these cases so that it is clear (to those who are aware of the system) that these are nominal and unexamined degrees. New convention at Oxford prefers "Oxf" to "Oxon". In the University of Cambridge the MA can also be awarded to senior members of staff, after three years of employment, if they have not previously studied at Cambridge.
If someone incorporates at another aforementioned university, the Latin et is inserted between the university names, e.g. "MA (Oxon. et Cantab.)", etc. as opposed to "MA (Oxon.), MA (Cantab.)" which would indicate that the holder read a second BA at the other university.
In all three universities, a Bachelor of Arts may "incept" as a Master of Arts as soon as s/he is of the required academic standing. No further examinations or residence are required, but some institutions may require the incipient to pay a fee.
- At Oxford, the MA may be conferred during or after the twenty-first term from matriculation (i.e. ordinarily seven years after joining the University) upon anyone holding an Oxford BA or Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree. An exception is that a Bachelor of Arts who attains the degree of Doctor of Philosophy may immediately incept as a Master of Arts, before the requisite number of terms have passed.
- At Cambridge, the MA may be conferred six years after the end of the first term in residence upon anyone holding a Cambridge Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree, provided they have held it for at least two years. There is no longer a university charge for the degree payable at the time (the former charge is now levied at the time of matriculation, though still applied towards the MA), although many colleges require an administration fee to be paid.
- At Dublin, the MA may be conferred to anyone holding a Dublin BA (or other bachelor degree of at least nine terms') for at least three years. A fee (€637 in 2012) is payable, but is waived in the case of graduates of more than fifty years' standing.
There are some other situations in which the MA may be conferred, but these are by far the most common; details of these other instances may be found in the sections referenced.
In accordance with the formula of ad eundem gradum recognition that exists between the three universities, a graduate of Oxford, Cambridge or Dublin who is entitled to an MA may be conferred with the equivalent degree at either of the other two universities without further examination. The Board of Trinity College, Dublin currently restricts its ad eundem awards to eligible members of the Dublin academic staff, or those who wish to register for a higher degree at Dublin; Cambridge restricts its awards to those "matriculated as a member of the University"; Oxford considers applicants who are undertaking a course of study or fulfil some educational role at Oxford, or who have "rendered valuable services to the University or to its members." This process is called 'incorporation'.
History and rationale
This system dates from the Middle Ages, when the study of the liberal arts took seven years. In the late mediaeval era students would attend university earlier than is now usual, and often as early as 14 or 15. The basic university education in the liberal arts comprised the Trivium (grammar, rhetoric and dialectic) and the Quadrivium (geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music), and typically took seven years of full-time study.
In between matriculation and licence to teach which was awarded at the end of an undergraduate's studies (whereafter he was incepted as a Master of Arts), he took an intermediate degree known as the baccalaureate, or degree of Bachelor of Arts. The division into trivium and quadrivium did not always correspond with the division between the studies required for the BA and MA, but was adopted in Cambridge in the Tudor era and maintained long after it was abandoned elsewhere in Europe. In the University of Paris the baccalaureate was granted soon after responsions (the examination for matriculation), whereas in Oxford and Cambridge the bachelor's degree was postponed to a much later stage, and gradually developed a greater significance.
On inception and admission to the degree of Master of Arts, a student would become a full member of the university, and allowed to vote in discussions of the house of Convocation. The new MA would then be required to teach in the university for a specified number of years (during which time he was a 'regent' or 'regent master'). Upon completion of these duties, he would become a 'non-regent master' and allowed to either leave the university (often to become a clerk or enter the priesthood), or stay on and undertake further studies in one of the specialist or 'higher' faculties of Divinity, Canon or Civil Law and Medicine.
Later, it became possible to study in the higher faculties as a BA, though the higher degree could not be taken until the student had the required seniority to incept as an MA. While the requirements for the bachelor's degree increased, those for the master's degree gradually diminished. By the 18th century, the ancient system of disputations had degenerated into a mere formality, and it was possible to satisfy the prescribed terms of residence, which formerly included compulsory attendance at set lectures, by keeping one's name on the college books. Examinations along modern lines were introduced for the BA and MA degrees in Oxford by the first great statute to reform the examination system in 1800, but the MA examination was abolished by a second statute in 1807.
While the length of the undergraduate degree course has been shortened to three or four years in all subjects, all three universities still require roughly seven years to pass before the awarding of the MA. The shortening of the degree course reflects the fact that much of the teaching of the liberal arts was taken over by grammar schools, and undergraduates now enter university at a much older age (17 or 18). (It may be noted that the school-leaving certificate in France today is known as the baccalaureate.)
The University of London, in the mid-19th century, broke away from the ancient model by considering the MA to be a higher degree distinct from the initial degree. However, in instituting a course of further study beyond the initial baccalaureate, London can be seen to have reverted to the ancient model. Almost all newer universities followed London's lead with the result that the Oxbridge model is now the anomaly. Some followed the Oxbridge model for some years (some allowed progressions in the same faculty such as BSc to MSc, etc.) but changed to the London system afterwards.
Rights and privileges
The degree of Master of Arts traditionally carried various rights and privileges, the chief of which was membership of the legislative bodies of the universities - Convocation at Oxford and the Senate at Cambridge and Dublin. These were originally important decision-making bodies, approving changes to the statutes of the universities and electing various officials, including the two members of Parliament for each university. Inception to the MA degree was the principal way of becoming a member of these bodies, though it is not the only way, e.g. at Oxford Doctors of Divinity, Medicine and Civil Law were always also automatically members of Convocation. Today, the main role of Convocation and Senate is the election of the Chancellor of each university; the Professor of Poetry at Oxford; the High Steward at Cambridge.
The privileges accorded to MAs and other members of Convocation/Senate were formerly very important. At Oxford, until 1998 the Proctors only had the power to discipline "junior members" (those who had not been admitted to membership of Convocation), which meant that any graduate student who had incepted as an MA was immune from their authority. At Cambridge, MAs and those with MA status continue to be exempt from the rules governing the ownership of motor vehicles by students. Other privileges intended for academic staff and alumni, e.g. the right to dine at High Table, to attend Gaudies, to walk upon college lawns, etc., are in most colleges restricted to MAs, which excludes the majority of graduate students.
For Dublin, the right to elect senators to the upper house of the Irish parliament, Seanad Éireann, is now restricted to those who are Irish citizens and since 1918 the franchise was extended to include all graduates, not only those with an MA.
Thus, the powers, role and significance of the MA degree has been greatly diminished for all three Universities.
The MA degree gives its holder a particular status in the universities' orders of precedence/seniority. In the University of Oxford a Master of Arts enjoys precedence, standing, and rank before all doctors, masters, and bachelors of the university who are not Masters of Arts, apart from Doctors of Divinity and Doctors of Civil Law. However, members of the university with undergraduate masters' degrees automatically gain the precedence of a Master of Arts 21 terms after matriculation. Precedence, standing, and rank were formerly important for determining eligibility for appointments such as fellowships, but now generally have only a ceremonial significance.
In Oxford, until 2000 the university statutes required that all members of Congregation (the academic and senior staff of the university) have at least the degree of DD, DM, DCL or MA or have MA status. This linked back to the MA as the licence to teach in the university. MA status was thus routinely granted to academics from other universities who came to take up positions within the university; while it is no longer granted in this way, many members of Congregation appointed before 2000 retain MA status.
In Cambridge, MA status is automatically accorded to graduates of other universities studying in Cambridge who are aged 24 or older (graduate students under 24 years are given BA status). This entitles them to wear the appropriate Cambridge gown, but without strings.
For the above cases, the status is not a degree so is automatically relinquished upon leaving the University (in the case of Oxford) or completion of their degree (for Cambridge).
In 2000, research by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education showed that 62% of employers were unaware that the Cambridge MA did not represent any kind of postgraduate achievement involving study. The same survey found widespread ignorance amongst employers regarding university-level qualifications in general: 51% believed the Edinburgh MA to be a postgraduate qualification, 22% were unaware that a Doctorate in Business Administration was a higher qualification than an undergraduate Diploma of Higher Education, and 40% thought that a BA or BSc was a postgraduate degree.
In February 2011, the Labour MP for Nottingham East, Chris Leslie, sponsored a private member's bill in Parliament, the Master’s Degrees (Minimum Standards) Bill 2010-12, in order to "prohibit universities awarding Master’s degrees unless certain standards of study and assessment are met". The Bill's supporters described the practice as a "historical anachronism” and argued that unearned qualifications should be discontinued in order to preserve the academic integrity of the taught MA. Further, they warned that the title gave Oxbridge graduates an unfair advantage in the job market. The Bill's opponents disputed that the title provided an unfair advantage in practice, noted that the QAA had previously investigated the matter and was unconcerned, and questioned whether it was desirable for Parliament to interfere in the academic procedures of autonomous universities, especially when there was no suggestion that analogous practices at Scottish universities be similarly reformed. The Bill received its second reading on 21 October 2011, during which many of these points were raised, but subsequently failed to complete its passage through Parliament before the end of the session and thus made no further progress.
- See for instance a reader's letter to The Times: , an Independent article  and an article in The Oxford Student 
- "Oxford Gazette: Guide to Style" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-11-21.
- "Chapter 4: Regulations for the Degree of Master of Arts". University of Oxford Examination Decrees and Regulations for the Academic Year 2005-2006. Oxford University Press. 2005. p. 563.
- "Ordinances Chapter V: B.A. Degree and M.A. Degree". Statutes and Ordinances of the University of Cambridge and Passages from Acts of Parliament relating to the University. Cambridge University Press. 2005. p. 424.
- "Degrees and Diplomas - II. REGULATIONS GOVERNING THE AWARD OF DEGREES - 4. Masters". College Calendar, Trinity College Dublin. 2007. p. E5.
- "Statute X: Degrees, Diplomas, and Certificates". Statutes and Regulations, University of Oxford.
- "Chapter XXII: Chapter relating to the Degrees conferred by the University". The 1966 Consolidated Statutes of Trinity College, Dublin, and the University of Dublin. 2006. p. 83.
- "Degrees and Diplomas - II. REGULATIONS GOVERNING THE AWARD OF DEGREES - 10. Degrees awarded in special cases: degrees ad eundem gradum". College Calendar, Trinity College Dublin. 2007. p. E5.
- "Ordinances Chapter II: Matriculation, Residence, Admission to Degrees, Discipline". Statutes and Ordinances of the University of Cambridge and Passages from Acts of Parliament relating to the University. Cambridge University Press. 2007. p. 179.
- "Regulations for Degrees, Diplomas, and Certificates, Part 1: Admission to Degrees - Incorporation". Statutes and Regulations, University of Oxford. 2002.
- "Statutes and Ordinances of the University of Cambridge: Statute A Chapter 1". Admin.cam.ac.uk. Retrieved 2012-11-21.
- "Statutes and Regulations: Statute III - Convocation". Admin.ox.ac.uk. Retrieved 2012-11-21.
- "Representation of the University in Seanad Éireann" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-11-21.
- "Ordinances Chapter II: Matriculation, Residence, Admission to Degrees, Discipline". Statutes and Ordinances of the University of Cambridge and Passages from Acts of Parliament relating to the University. Cambridge University Press. 2005. p. 186.
- "Regulations for Degrees, Diplomas and Certificates, Part 2: Academic Precedence and Standing". Statutes and Regulations, University of Oxford. 2002.
- "Oxbridge students' MA 'degrees' under threat". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 2 January 2013.
- "QAA to tighten reins on MAs". Times Higher Education Supplement. 7 July 2000. Retrieved 6 February 2014.
- "Master's Degrees (Minimum Standards) Bill 2010-2012". UK Parliament. Retrieved 2 January 2013.
- "Master’s Degrees (Minimum Standards) Bill 2010-2012: Second Reading". House of Commons Hansard Debates. 21 October 2011.
- Ordinances of the University of Cambridge regarding Master of Arts degree
- Regulations of the University of Oxford regarding Master of Arts degree
- Oxbridge MA degrees under threat (BBC website)
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