Revisiting the purpose of a master’s

The term non-research master’s carries a sniff of deficiency, much like the apartheid notices about non-whites did. A more accurate term is coursework master’s. I want to suggest that within the qualification of master’s there are several different needs that must be addressed with appropriate curricula and financing.

Historically, a master of arts degree in the medieval universities of Europe took seven years. You started at the age of 15 with three years of the “trivium” — grammar, rhetoric and dialectic (note the strong language preparation necessary for university studies, and in Latin, of course, not the mother tongue). Then came the four-year “quadrium” — geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music. Only after that did some scholars proceed to become doctors of theology, law or medicine.

To teach in a university required the senior status of master. Some universities introduced a qualification of “bachelor” midway through the seven years. Then, as grammar schools took over the trivium, this qualification, in France, became the baccalaureate (now the school-leaving examination required for entrance to tertiary education). In England, the bachelor degree was awarded after three years at university, but after four years in Scotland and the United States.

Meanwhile, new disciplines grew, such as engineering, architecture, agriculture and veterinary sciences, some attached to the old universities, some in new ones such as London and Manchester, and some in new tertiary institutions such the French grandes ecoles, which exist above the French universities.

Nowadays, whether a student starts a specialisation directly from school or later varies by country. In the US, only after a four-year undergraduate qualification with a broad “liberal” curriculum does a student enter graduate school to train as a doctor or lawyer. In Germany and the Scandinavian countries, a five-year qualification is more common, going straight to master’s level with no bachelor step, but with more subjects in the first years of tertiary study and then specialising at the higher levels.

In the globalising world of recent decades, it has become necessary to benchmark different national qualifications to facilitate the migration of educated people and to anchor educational categories for country-by-country statistics. Enter Unesco, which in 1978 formulated the so-called Isced97 levels of education (from pre-primary to doctorates), and through its Institute of Statistics ( collects data from national ministries of education. Regrettably South Africa’s data for tertiary statistics is largely missing, in spite of our Higher Education Management Information System (Hemis), which appears not to have forwarded our stats for international display.

All tertiary level university qualifications appear on Isced in various permutations — short, medium and long, with the doctorate at Isced level six. If one wants to compare master’s level qualifications in different countries, Isced mapping is the tool to use, with the downloadable Excel sheets from the Unesco Institute for Statistics. An Isced97 review is due at Unesco’s general conference next month, with special focuses on early childhood education, categories of vocational training and some aspects of tertiary education.

In European Union countries, the cross-border market of postgraduate students has grown, necessitating the “Bologna” process of converging definitions of degrees. By and large this has been achieved by splitting the old five-year degrees into the bachelors (first cycle of three years) and the master’s (second cycle of two years). But it can be argued that, although this homogenising process may have been useful for intra-migrating eurozone students, some purposes of the “second” and “third” cycles may have been blurred by some countries dropping some of their distinctive concepts of qualifications.

There are further distinctions within Isced between theory and practice and between general foundation and specialisation. A 2009 review by the European Universities Association discerned three categories of master’s programmes: professional development application, research-intensive and returning learners while in service.

How does this relate to South Africa’s dual classification of research and coursework master’s?

Let us now posit five types of master’s programmes:

      1. MRes. Research apprenticeship, as in sciences and also in scholarship of text studies;

      2. MSpec. Further specialisation in applied science, as in medical science or engineering;

      3. MPrac. Further studies appropriate to more senior levels in a profession, usually kinds of management studies;

      4. MAcad. Higher studies in a discipline for teaching in higher education; and

      5. MPerf. Master performers in music and creative arts.

MRes students would be attached full time to their professor’s research projects. It is appropriate that the financial incentives should be to graduate those students in a minimum time so that they can join the research community of that science as PhD and higher researchers, thus increasing the science, engineering and technical (SET) wealth of the nation. What is not so clear is when those students, if they are heading for a higher education career, will get the time or incentive to learn how to teach.

MSpec students need more taught courses because of the sheer quantity of extra knowledge required. In some medical specialisations, for instance, the specialisation also requires much time in clinical practice, so it would be of no benefit to try to graduate such candidates in a shorter time. When I last looked at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s statistics, the MMed had the biggest dropout rate of all master’s qualifications. But among the MMed graduates there are those who become clinical specialists and PhD researchers.

MPrac is the largest category and includes the MBA and master’s programmes in education, public health, nursing and town planning. Almost none of these students can enrol full time because they are employed in their profession. The curriculum they need includes many taught courses and a smaller research project (rather than a thesis) that enables them to reflect on their experience in the field.

MAcad curricula, such as the MEcon and the MSocSci, have taught courses that give the students greater depth of theory and grasp of the discipline, which is appropriate for those who plan to teach it at tertiary level. A taught course gives greater all-round exposure to different facets of the discipline than would be gained by a full research degree, which is appropriate for a future researcher but not necessarily for the future university teacher. Academics would hone their research skills at PhD level.

Finally, the MPerf is a small category of identified talented individuals perfecting their techniques.

The last four categories would be filled with part-time students in employment. It could be argued that it is more costly, because of their job roles in schools, hospitals and businesses, to try to push them through master’s programmes quickly. Yet that is what is happening because the state’s higher education funding framework gives higher subsidies for research-only qualifications and for students who get through quickly. Instead of a variety of mixes of research and taught courses, there is a proposal to tidy all the coursework masters into the “50% thesis plus 50% courses” model. This might be neat for Hemis number-crunching but it amounts to re-purposing some MPrac curricula as if they were research apprenticeships.

All master’s programmes get the teaching input grant based on the numbers of full-time equivalent (FTE) students enrolled two years before the pay-out year, which is controlled by the enrolment norms laid down by the higher education and training department. Thus a full-time MRes enrolee is subsidised by one FTE amount (about R10 000) multiplied by the weighting for master’s degrees in the relevant subject classification levels, which pay for sciences rather than for sociology degrees.

The research proportion attracts a subsidy using a complicated formula, taking account of the credit weighting of research within the degree and the average number of graduating master’s students in that programme over the preceding three years — hence the rush to get students going on their research projects sooner.

Whereas a full research master’s gains the university R112 000 per FTE, a coursework master’s garners only R56 000. The proportion of a programme that is taught attracts a teaching output grant calculated only on the number (FTE) of those who actually graduate. It is much smaller than the teaching input grant — in aggregate about 12% of the size of the input grant — and is diminished by the numbers of lagging students in the programme.

Delayed student progress
More research is needed into what delays student progress and whether it would not be better to acknowledge the credits and stages reached rather than stigmatise dropouts. In the US, the MLitt is known as the qualification aspirant PhDs take if they cannot complete the doctorate, as can happen because of career and family reasons.

In South Africa there used to be an advanced diploma in education that was awarded to those who could not proceed with the research component of the MEd. In the United Kingdom, some master’s programmes are designed with credits taken part-time over three years, and earning a certain number of credits qualifies you to receive an advanced diploma.

These banked qualifications are woman friendly. For instance, a young mother can return later in life to complete the requirements for the higher degree. If she doesn’t, the lesser qualification may still provide career advancement.

There are curricular grounds for making the research project smaller in the MPrac and possibly the MAcad. In the rush to get students on to their research, this tends to be introduced in the first year before the students have time to deepen and widen their understanding of the field through more taught courses. At the University of KwaZulu-Natal we used to have a MEd programme with a 25% research project and 75% coursework. In 2000 this attracted six students from Mozambique, all experienced English teachers about to take on the job of managing the English teaching resource centres and English teacher training in each province.

They needed a variety of courses, including two language-related courses, a management course and one in higher education pedagogy. They wanted to do only a small research project closely related to their work — one piloted a newsletter for local English teachers and another tried improved oral tests. They did not want to do a 50% thesis programme that would take two years to complete.

There may even be human resource reasons for reducing rather than increasing the credit ratings of “research” in an MPrac. In some fields there is a limited number of available supervisors and this creates bottlenecks in registrations for master’s and PhD programmes. But in the MPrac, the originality of the “research” should not lie in research design but in action research. For example, in an MPrac in public health for hospital managers, one supervisor could work with a class of five or six to co-design research into “hygiene monitoring”, and candidates would each apply this to their own sites of employment.

Public health is an example of a discipline that needs both MPrac people — with a career in hospital management — and individuals who are heading for careers in epidemiological research. Both kinds of master’s programmes can be run from the same department, but it is a pity to trap hospital managers into master’s degrees with research credit weightings more appropriate to career researchers in SET fields.

The argument that an MPrac-type curriculum with less research would not produce PhD material is not valid, because any successful MPrac graduates who later wanted to do doctoral research could be asked to take extra relevant courses in research theory and practice if they did not do enough of this in their master’s programmes. The fact that they have done a broader curriculum of taught courses at master’s level and an action research project is more likely to tie their PhD into actual practice in the field.

I would argue that in South Africa it is time we stopped thinking that a coursework master’s is somehow inferior to a full-time research master’s. Granted, the country needs to enlarge its SET base, but it also needs well-informed and clear-thinking managers, as well as higher education teachers with a good all-round view of the discipline. Let’s think carefully about curriculum purpose and the needs of the candidates at master’s level and get the terminology and the financing to fit that — not the other way round.

Charlotte Mbali retired from full-time employment in the Centre for Higher Education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in December 2008. She is still involved in research supervision and adult education

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