Why I turned down an honorary MA from Cambridge.

A few weeks ago, a graduation ceremony took place in Cambridge. Processions of smartly dressed students, wrapped against the wind in gowns, marched formally to the Senate House, and after a short period inside, were seen celebrating and sipping champagne with relatives in the pristine garden of that great building, which sits at the heart of the ancient, venerable university. These graduations were for Cambridge MA degrees, and to the casual observer, seemed like nothing out of the ordinary.

It was a shame none of the students had done any work for those MAs.

Cambridge is a University of esoteric traditions, and one of these is the automatic provision for honorary MA degrees for anyone who studied for a Bachelors (or first) degree. The University website grandly declares:

If you hold a Cambridge BA, you may proceed to the MA not less than six years from the end of your first term of residence, providing that you have held your BA degree for at least two years.

In other words, three years after your graduation from your BA, you are invited back to Cambridge to receive an MA. You don’t have to work for this, and the University is at pains to mention that it is “not a post graduate qualification,” and is merely honorary. The people receiving their MA that day would have begun their degrees in the year 2009-10 (the year I started), though because I graduated a year later (for various reasons) I was not part of the crowd. But later that day, as I sat on the low wall in front of Kings College and watched my former student colleagues laugh and joke and share old stories, I wrote a short, polite letter to Sidney Sussex College (my alma mater) and informed them that I would not be attending the ceremony next year, and I would like my name to be struck from any register of honorary MA degrees.

I already hold a masters degree for Cambridge. It is one I self funded (I “narrowly” missed out on several scholarships) via a private loan. That loan added a further £10,000 to my already considerable student debt, and is money I have to pay off every month in installments until 2018, regardless of my income. I am not alone in this conundrum. When the coalition government brought in deep cuts to the higher education budget, one of the many things lost was funding for postgraduate students. On my masters course, many of my fellow students funded themselves, either by loans or by working illicitly (something banned by Cambridge) and we felt very much apart from those lucky few who had cosy scholarships. Post graduate funding, unlike undergraduate funding, is not awarded on need, but on merit. It would perhaps be a fairer state of affairs if there wasn’t so little funding. I currently hold three offers for PhDs from three top Universities. I was told, after being rejected for funding by one, that I was one of 1000 applicants who had applied for 22 funded places. You can do the maths yourself. I want to be an academic. I need a PhD for this. It is likely that I will fund any PhD I do by a private loan (again), which will mean that I have over £70,000 of debt before I have even started my career of choice.

Under the weight of this debt, watching people receive an MA without work, or, more importantly, the burden of sleepless nights wondering how I could afford to live, was painful. And while the Cambridge MA is not a “real” postgraduate qualification. However, the student newspaper Varsity reported that 60% of employers didn’t know that the Cambridge MA wasn’t a real qualification. Why would they? If someone writes “MA Cambridge” on their CV – as they have the right to do – why should any employer question this? I cannot say how many people have used the Cambridge MA to get themselves unfairly ahead in the job market, but this is not the point. What we are seeing at the moment is a crisis in higher education, with debt mounting, with increasing numbers of students seeking mental health support due to financial stress, and with shadowy proposals for another increase in fees the idea of claiming a free MA, no matter how “Honorary” it may be, does not sit well with me.

If you are a Cambridge student, then I will not condemn you for taking up your MA. I believe in the free choice of individuals, and for you, it might mean nothing than a chance to have some nostalgia and a few extra letters after your name. I however, cannot and will not accept it.

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2 thoughts on “Why I turned down an honorary MA from Cambridge.

  1. It’s a shame that the system has reached a state where it’s made you feel that way. 😦 I wish more people knew about what it actually meant, that would solve the problem. It’s not like the aim is to pretend that we have MAs, the oxbridge MA predates the academic MAs, being a title not a qualification. Technically everyone else just added the academic requirement to the MA that we get.

    I mean really, everyone should just get MAs. And then everyone with academic MAs can be Grand Masters! 😀

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    1. You’ve hit the nail on the head there. The issue is one of perception and I think that is where the problems lies. I’m not able to say for certain if anyone has ever used their MA to get an unfair advantage on the job market, but it doesn’t do much to help with the perception of elitism at Cambridge imo…

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