An Oxford absurdity


in Oxford, Rants

According to Esther and Wikipedia, it seems that anyone who completes a BA or BFA at Oxford automatically gets a Master of Arts (MA) degree seven years after matriculating, for a nominal fee. According to Wikipedia: “Despite the fact that no greater academic achievement is involved, the MA remains the most important degree in Oxford.”

Since I won’t have done an undergraduate degree here, it seems as though I will never get one of these nominal MAs. As such, once I finish my degree I will have the 28th highest possible rank, and it will never increase. If I had done a BA here, seven years after matriculating I would have risen to the 12th highest rank (provided I went on to do an M.Phil), or the 18th highest, if I just left it at the BA. In either case, I would outrank: “Doctor of Medicine if not also a Master of Arts”

There are apparently 46 ranks of Oxford graduates, the top 18 of which can only be earned if you have one of these MAs, with the exceptions of Doctors of Divinity and Civil Law (not Medicine). Only those with this titular MA can become full members of the university. The highest Oxford academic rank: “Doctor of Divinity” and the lowest: “Bachelor of Education.”

Despite spending two years and an absurd amount of money, I will end up with a degree that is nominally less important than one you get automatically. Completely absurd.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

B February 19, 2006 at 4:15 pm

Digging around a bit more:

“At Oxford, the degree of Master of Arts has retained much the same academic significance it had during the Middle Ages. The degree admits the recipient ipso facto to the Faculty of Arts and to the ancient privilege of “Regency”, or the right to teach, though only in the colleges, the university professors being specially appointed.”

Absurd, indeed.

Jo February 19, 2006 at 4:18 pm

The former Oxford undergrads will tell you the ‘Oxford MA’ is different to the MA you get when you study for one but the rest of the world just blinks in bewilderment…

Milan February 19, 2006 at 4:24 pm


I am guessing that’s precisely the point. Most non-academic employers will spot it on your resume and accept without question that you did a graduate degree at Oxford.

B February 19, 2006 at 4:25 pm

Another question:

Why do doctors and masters of divinity so heavily outgun doctors and masters of theology in that ranking? What’s the difference?

Chris Brooke February 19, 2006 at 4:46 pm

I’ve been around this university almost nine years now (1992-5, 2000-present), and I’ve never come across any occasion on which the “order of precedence” of degree-holders mattered in any way, shape or form. I’ve never been to Encaenia — perhaps it does there, I don’t know (but what happens there doesn’t really matter for anything).

Obviously the MA-by-paying-a-fee is absurd, but there’s one tolerably good reason for why the university treats MAs in the way that it does, and that concerns gowns.

Academics do things in gowns from time to time, especially on formal occasions, and the gowns they wear are the MA gowns, regardless of what other degrees they might have. I don’t think that’s because we fetishise the MA degree, so much as because the gown is a stylish garment (like Levi 501s, virtually everyone looks good in a full-length black MA gown), and because it serves as a kind of uniform — it’d look odd, for example, if some people turned up to a Governing Body meeting in their bright pink PhD robes, rather than in an MA gown.

So what the university still does is hand out “MA status” to anyone who is elected to a College fellowship, but who doesn’t have an Oxford degree, entitling them to wear the MA gown that all the rest of the teaching staff are wearing. (Having said that, I don’t know if it formally raises someone to MA status who turns up to teach with an Oxford MPhil or BPhil, though the MPhil and BPhil gowns, if memory serves, are very close indeed to the MA gowns.)

(We can have a separate argument about gown-wearing: I think British academics are so badly dressed, that it’s not a bad idea to put them in a stylish outfit from time to time; on the other hand I think it’s ridiculous that students have to wear full academic dress when sitting their exams. But while the Colleges do have their teaching staff doing things in gowns, everyone has something of an interest in having everyone wearing an MA gown.)

On the wider point, though: it’s not unusual for Master’s students to feel squeezed in terms of status between the undergraduates and the PhD students, regardless of what the rules about degree-order-of-precedence are. As far as I can tell, that happens in a number of other places, too.

And on your recent comment, Milan: I doubt most non-academic employers do “accept without question that you did a graduate degree at Oxford”, not because they have an in depth knowledge of the degree system we have here, but because it will in most cases be the only degree being reported, and nobody has a graduate degree without also having picked up an undergraduate degree. Actually, I can think of one person. Almost nobody.

Milan February 19, 2006 at 4:51 pm


Thanks for all the information.

Regarding the issue of employers, it doesn’t seem as though it would have to appear like you only had one degree. Couldn’t you legitimately list yourself as:

John Doe, BA (Oxford), MA (Oxford)

on the basis of having one of these honourary degrees?

Chris Brooke February 19, 2006 at 5:10 pm

No, because the BA is converted into an MA: you don’t get an extra degree along the way.


What’s the difference between mad cow disease and a physics degree from this university?

One’s BSE in oxen, the other’s a BSc (Oxon).

Well, actually not a terribly accurate joke, as we don’t have BSc’s here. But it made me laugh the first time I heard it.

Chris Brooke February 19, 2006 at 7:50 pm

It’s me again. Since this is a thread about silly degrees…

There was a lovely moment a few years ago when the (then very right-wing) Tory politician Michael Portillo said that the difference between the UK and the other countries in the European Union was that you earned degrees here, rather than buying them — in response to which some shrewd journalist asked him which European countries was he talking about, and just how much did he pay for his Cambridge MA?

Milan February 19, 2006 at 8:02 pm


Tony February 19, 2006 at 8:51 pm

Yes… you see, I’m prouder of my Oxford MA that is of this anomalous kind, than I am of my Oxford MTh that I worked for…

Meanwhile, Alison, who gained the first Oxford DPhil to be awarded to a part-time student, can’t ever be an Oxford MA because, although she matriculated, she didn’t do an undergraduate degree here.

You’ve got to love it, haven’t you?

Mike February 20, 2006 at 3:51 pm

It’s completely daft, isn’t it? I refused to pay £10 for an Oxford MA rather than working for a real one, which barring major mishaps I’ll get some time in 2008. If by then Oxford Uni haven’t been prosecuted under the Trade Descriptions Act, just to make it clear that mine is a real Oxford MA I’ll have to put the names of the different colleges afterwards in brackets…

Dan (New Coll) May 4, 2006 at 11:04 am


Just discovered this thread; sorry to bring a comment this late.

A few quick points: Prior to 2000, when the University instituted major governance reforms, the Master of Arts degree actually had some functional purpose because it designated membership of Convocation (although still relatively inconsequential since they only really voted for the Chancellor and the Professor of Poetry). But the 2000 reforms now extended Convocation membership and voting rights to anybody who has been admitted to a degree of the University, meaning that even DPhils, MPhils, MScs, etc. etc. are functionally equivalent to Master of Arts. Really, the degree of MA(Oxon) is now truly completely useless with these new reforms.

Re academic dress: The gowns for graduate students are all completely wrong as well. MPhils, DPhil undress gowns, MBAs, etc. all are given the lay-type gown–or gimp gowns–that have a special kind of lace. The usual justification is that these degrees are not in the traditional Arts Faculty of the university. But if you actually read the Latin formula for the admission of candidates to degrees, all of them are admitted to the Faculty of Arts, meaning that they should all be wearing the same gown as holders of BA/MA. The gowns that are currently assigned actually are of the medieval higher faculties which European civil lawyers usually wore in courts.

Really, any degree holder of the University, by virtue of Convocation membership and the Faculty of Arts, is now entitled to wear an MA, just as any MA-status can now do so.

It’s a big mess. Oxford really needs to do something to correct this situation. It doesn’t help that they create new degree programs every six months.

Dan (New Coll)
Princeton, NJ

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