The third degree

Hilary Moriarty considers the changing value of academic degrees

I’m a lifelong strictly ‘arts student’. My GCE in maths was a miracle of rote learning for the geometry paper and it took me three times to pass GCE biology at a time when it was really important, not to me but for the slot on the UCAS form where you needed a pass in a science. No maths, no science? Then no admission to university, in those times – whatever you wanted to study thereafter. Sorry, I’m beginning to feel prehistoric. Chat to me at a conference about such things and I may deny it categorically.

In a four-year honours degree in English language and literature, the nearest I got to those pesky demands of specific right or wrong answers, as opposed to carefully considered and phrased opinions on the literature of the last thousand years, was in the three years of obligatory Anglo-Saxon and Middle English. This was genuine study, harder (I found) than A-level Latin. Interestingly, I was told my Latin A-level was the major reason they had accepted me for the course.

We were quite an exclusive clan of about 30. In a four-year course, you did not get to the final year if you failed the Middle English exam at the end of year three.

Trinity College Dublin, when I was there, was fairly hostile to American literature. It was available as an option for one year, a term each for novels, plays and poetry. Memorably, the lecturer entrusted with the drama part of the syllabus came to the podium at his first lecture and said, “When I was asked to head up the course on American drama, my first reaction was to say, ‘what American drama?’” Oh, how we laughed! Though in passing, one might reflect that this indicated what is probably a problem for many university departments. There’s more ‘stuff’ every day, how do you keep up? How do you decide what is too old or too obvious to matter to today’s students, and what must be explored because it’s new and current? Babies and bathwater come to mind, with the addition of a hefty tap pouring in fresh water all the time.

Science of learning

My second degree was a master’s in modern English and American literature – so many plays! I sent my Trinity man a list. And there it is, another arts degree.

But what I always lusted after – bizarrely, or maybe just wanting to look brighter than I actually was – was a qualification which glossed over a lifetime’s avoidance of science. So when I looked for a master’s degree in leadership and management in education – my third degree – it was a matter of real pride that the course for which I was accepted was an MSc.

In all fairness, it was hard to see how the course was an MSc and how it might differ from an MA.

There was much reading and writing. The first year ‘exam’ entailed producing a diary of the student’s current life in management/leadership, the second year was a consideration of a specific school problem and the third year, the dissertation, was 10,000 words on an education issue of the student’s choice. I think the closest this particular course got to ‘science’, as I would recognise it, was in statistics which the student could include/ignore at their choice. And – you won’t be surprised – that was not a path I chose. And in fact – again you may not be surprised – my dissertation was heavily criticised for being ‘too journalistic’. Hmm.

In my working lifetime, there has surely been a dramatic increase in the number of staff in any school who now have a master’s degree to enhance their academic credentials if they are interested in promotion to positions of power and influence.

For headship, it’s a marker if that third degree is a doctorate. Now that has class. That’s the tops, really. It could be the product of three years on an iceberg considering the behaviour of penguins, or three years in a library making sense and evaluating the influence of John Berryman on 20th-century American poetry. (Now that is interesting – any comments?)

However you got it, by the detailed and academic consideration of whatever you explored or examined – and governing bodies may be keen for your final thesis to have a school connection – the doctorate is the one that matters. After all, no one introduces you as ‘Joe Bloggs, MA’, but the ‘Dr’ is always there whenever you are announced and very few people will ask for details.

If an MSc in education leadership used to look useful and open many senior doors, the days of relative exclusivity are surely gone

At a time when bachelors’ degrees are beginning to feel as if they may be within reach of any teenager with time and cash to spare – unconditional offer, anyone? – and first-class degrees appear to be handed out like dolly mixtures, the market for the master’s degree must be expanding. And of course, that’s more business for the universities, isn’t it? Silly me. In my archaic days, a master’s course was only open to those with a first-class degree or a very, very near miss to a 2:1, supported by tutor references which were able to account for the fall from grace to a humble second class. Today? Come on in. There was, perhaps, little mileage for universities in keeping the degree for the exclusive few. Far more sensible to open the doors and capitalise on demand.

If an MSc in education leadership used to look useful and open many senior doors, the days of relative exclusivity are surely gone. How accessible will PhDs look from the head’s office or the deputy’s chair? In some cases, a long-serving head has been offered a sabbatical in which time to refresh the batteries and renew the soul, and returned to academe for a few giddy terms. There was one such head on my first master’s course, entranced by the freedoms of student life and the leisurely pace of one essay to produce and one seminar to attend each week. In fact, I’m not entirely sure he returned to school at all.

And that, of course, is the risk that schools and governing bodies may take. A senior member of staff becoming slightly jaded? A sponsored second degree may be just the fillip he/she needs. Come back refreshed, full of bright ideas to try out. And quite possibly with renewed interest in the task at hand, a new perspective on troubles old and new, big and small, a new appreciation of all the splendid things he/she and their faithful staff have done and intend to do and could do if they pulled out all the stops.

Or not, of course. For the risk is that to see beyond the gates, to get to an outside world which has probably changed since they last spent serious time in it, is to consider seriously moving on. The supportive school may well lose its newly refreshed and invigorated head to pastures new and curse the day it actually paid for/supported the latent ambitions of its key leader.

And then you’re in the market for a new head – ideally someone who already has the third degree.

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