The Future of the Taught MA in English – Event – De Montfort University, 25 April 2008

Postgraduate studies

‘In English Studies [the UK] has not yet engaged with the question of the function of the MA degree in an educational market that is increasingly professionalized, monitored, surveyed, and assessed. Why do students enrol for MA degrees? Why do we teach MA modules and devise or redevelop MA courses?…what, besides duration and cost, makes the MA degree distinct from the BA?’

This quotation from Professor Jacqueline Labbe’s  foreword to the recent English Subject Centre Report on the taught MA in English (see below) provided the springboard to this event, initially conceived by Deborah Cartmell (De Montfort University), that focussed on the changing context of, and pressures on, the taught postgraduate degree in English.

Jackie Labbe (Warwick University) also introduced the day by taking participants through the QAA Masters Level Descriptor and exploring some of the knotty issues it raises for MAs in our discipline. Many of these were explored further in the discussion session at the end of the day. They included:

  • How do students make the transition from BA to MA level work?
  • How far are postgraduate courses research-led?
  • How does an MA essay differ from a BA essay?
  • How can students demonstrate ‘understanding of techniques application to their own research’?
  • Is the MA a terminal qualification or preparation for a research degree?

Participants were intrigued when Jackie mentioned that at Warwick MA students can opt to take additional modules instead of writing a dissertation. This led to some debate about the importance of the dissertation within an MA programme.

Lyn Pykett (University of Aberystwyth and outgoing Convenor of the AHRC English Language and Literature Panel), outlined the context within which the Panel works and some of the pressures it faces.    Forty percent of the AHRC programme budget goes on supporting postgraduates, but because this is a much higher percentage than other research councils, it has to be defended to DIUS.  In 2008 there will be only 1,000 postgraduate awards for English (1,500 in 2007) although this is expected to increase to 1,325 in 2009. English is one of the most competitive areas: in 2007 there were 391 applications under the research preparation scheme with 74 awards.  Under the professional preparation scheme there were 65 applications and 10 awards, all of which were in creative writing.  (Assessing applications in creative writing was particularly difficult.)  Lyn emphasised that the AHRC funds only about 10% of arts and humanities postgraduates in the UK, and therefore seems to ‘punch above its weight’ in terms of the pressure it exerts.

Joe Phelan (De Montfort University) reported on a survey he conducted of undergraduate student attitudes towards postgraduate study.  The majority of students responding did not see the MA as a stepping stone to a PhD; in fact the highest score was for improving job prospects, although general personal development and enjoyment also scored highly.  Money, time and practical considerations were the seen as the biggest deterrents to postgraduate study.  In response to the survey outcomes, DMU has moved away from a general MA back to themed MAs since students preferred this stronger identity.  They have also shifted teaching to the ‘twilight’ hours, and are thinking of putting some core research skills modules online.

Carolyn Brown (Greenwich) and Alex Goody (Oxford Brookes) presented case studies about the development of MAs at their own institutions.  This added to the sense that postgraduate degrees are continuously evolving and thriving despite the financial pressures faced by students and institutional pressures faced by the departments who provide them.

In the concluding session participants were tasked with developing lists of M-Level attributes for English.  This led to a discussion that ranged, amongst much else, across the usefulness of the essay as a form of assessment; the need to balance students’ demands for a more individualised experience against the financial pressures to run a more profitable ‘mass’ system and the role of the MA in relation to employability, continuing education and the wider community.  Despite the uncertainties raised about recruitment, financial viability, and a changing employment market, participants were confident that there was indeed a future for the taught MA, albeit as part of a more diverse and fragmented set of degrees.