The status of Master of Arts at Cambridge

The degree of Master of Arts at the University of Cambridge is unusual in that, although it is a full degree, it is conferred without examination, reflecting its mediæval origin whereby its holders became full members of the University. Indeed, until 1851, students of King’s College were also permitted to proceed to the Bachelor of Arts degree without examination. The majority of those who proceed to the conferral of the degree today are holders of the degree of Bachelor of Arts who are eligible to proceed MA in the sixth term after they came into residence and two years after proceeding BA. There is also provision for conferral of the MA upon senior academic members of the University and certain other officers, and for its conferral by incorporation on holders of the same degree at the Universities of Oxford and Dublin.

Statute B II 2(d) permits the University to make an Ordinance “prescribing conditions under which the status of Bachelor of Arts and or Master of Arts may be held or may be granted by the Council.” The Ordinance in question is contained in Chapter II, pp. 169-170.

The status of a degree is not the same either as the conferral of the degree proper, or the conferral of the title of a degree (which was formerly done in the case of female students and is today retained under Statute A II 14 for conferring degrees honoris causa, whereby the degree is conferred without its full privileges). Status might best be defined as admission to the privileges of a degree without that degree having been formally conferred. However, at Cambridge, the privileges of those who hold BA and MA status are more restricted than those who have had the degree conferred upon them. For example, those who hold MA status are not members of the Senate, whereas those who have been admitted to the full MA degree are.

The status of Bachelor of Arts is either had, by virtue of a person’s status as a Graduate Student, or granted for a set period of time upon recommendation by the Head or a Tutor of a College. Where it is had, the person in question is a Graduate Student who is not a graduate of the University. For such persons, the status of Bachelor of Arts ends when they cease to be registered as a Graduate Student or when they are eligible to have the status of Master of Arts. The status of Bachelor of Arts allows the privileges of wearing the BA gown without its strings, but not the BA hood, and to have the same privileges as a BA so far as access to the University’s libraries, museums and Botanic Garden is concerned. It restricts the holder, however, from being a candidate for the degrees of Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Music.

The status of Master of Arts may again either be had or granted. Where it is had, the person in question must either be a Graduate Student or an “other person who has previously had the status Bachelor of Arts” who has attained the age of twenty-four years. Where it is granted, which is for a set period of time in each case, the recipient is a Fellow of a College, a University officer, another University officer or employee of a specified category, or a graduate or visiting scholar from another university recommended for the grant by the Chair of a Faculty Board or the Head of a Department. The status of Master of Arts allows the holder to wear the MA gown without its strings, but not its hood, and to have the same privileges as an MA with respect to the University’s libraries (except the University Library), museums and Botanic Garden. They may also certify their own residence, and are not subject to the regulations for motor vehicles, bicycles or boats. As with BA status there is a restriction on holders becoming candidates for the degrees of Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Music.

It is not in question that the status of Bachelor of Arts is either had or granted on a temporary basis. It will end in each case when the holder either receives a degree of the University, ceases to be a Graduate Student, qualifies to have MA status or when their grant of BA status expires.

However, it is not widely realized that there are certain circumstances whereby the status of Master of Arts may be held indefinitely. Consider, for example, my own position as a Graduate Student at Cambridge for a term during 1996. At the time of my matriculation in October, I was aged twenty-three years, and by virtue of my being a Graduate Student, duly had the status of Bachelor of Arts. But in December during that term, I celebrated my twenty-fourth birthday and consequently qualified to have Master of Arts status. I ceased to be a registered Graduate Student at the end of the term, and during my time at the University did not take any exams or become a candidate for a degree.

The question then arises as to when the status of Master of Arts will end in those cases where it is had rather than granted (since all grants are for a fixed term). The position is not the same as that for had BA status, whereby that status definitively ends when the holder ceases to be registered as a Graduate Student. Indeed, someone in my position would continue to qualify to hold MA status after ceasing to be a registered Graduate Student, given that I then fulfilled the alternative qualification of being an “other person who has previously had the status Bachelor of Arts”. The phrase “other person” is not further defined, nor, since membership of the University is for life, could it logically be interpreted as being limited to those in statu pupillari. It must, therefore, include former Graduate Students.

The conditions under which MA status continues to be held are set out as being “for so long as he or she is not of standing to proceed to the degree of Master of Arts”. It will be clear that there are those who would never be of such standing, since they are prima facie ineligible to proceed to the degree of Master of Arts, and are forbidden by the regulations for MA status from being a candidate for the degree of Bachelor of Arts. In those cases, including my own, the status of Master of Arts would therefore appear to be held indefinitely.

To summarize, the holding of indefinite Master of Arts status occurs when a person fulfils  the following conditions:

1. They have had or been granted BA status.
2. They have subsequently had MA status having been a Graduate Student who has attained the age of twenty-four years.
3. They are ineligible to proceed to the degree of MA.

Whether this situation has arisen intentionally or not is a matter for speculation, and naturally it is open to the University to change its regulations on this point should it see fit to do so. However, the number of people affected is certainly small, and it is doubtful whether, in practice, any privilege extended to them by virtue of holding MA status would be of significance when compared to the general privileges extended to all alumni by the University and the Colleges. Doubtless some of those affected will, like me, have since proceeded to the substantive degree of Master of Arts at another University.

This article is based on the 2019 edition of the Statutes and Ordinances of the University of Cambridge, available online at https://www.admin.cam.ac.uk/univ/so/index.shtml

About johnkersey

Historian, musician and educationalist.
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