In the business world the masters degree is seen as one of the essential steps on the moving staircase leading towards senior management. MBAs (Master of Business Administration) are de rigeur for many posts. A recent survey by the publishers, Hobsons, found that MBA students were typically degree holders in their thirties looking to enhance their salary and relaunch their careers.
By contrast the education MA started life as a research-based exercise in individual academic development. The move to modules and the taught degree is a Nineties phenomenon. More than 50 universities offer a taught masters in education and most have a significant management element.
On to this stage recently stepped the Teacher Training Agency with its proposed structure of skills- based qualifications, ranging from the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) down to the National Professional Qualification for Expert Teachers. The headteachers' qualification has been piloted since January, whilst the version for expert teachers is due to go out to interested parties for consultation.
To say that the agency's proposed structure of professional qualifications has had a mixed reception would be to understate the situation considerably. Its chief executive, Anthea Millet, has sailed her armada into some very stormy seas indeed.
David Galloway, professor of education at Durham university, accepts the principle of a qualifications structure for the profession and argues that a move towards a unified structure was "long overdue". However, he is opposed to the structure proposed by the agency. He accuses it of a "narrow and instrumental approach" and is deeply critical of the situation where the agency has control over both funding and accreditation.
"Only in a totalitarian state does a non-elected body have such power, " he says. Professor Galloway has no confidence in the agency's ability to consult in a meaningful way, accusing it of being a "highly controlling, very rigid and frankly megalomaniac organisation".
More than one-third of the universities contacted by The TES had concerns about the impact of the Teacher Training Agency's proposals. These ranged from funding issues, to the effect on demand for the taught masters courses, to concerns about the competency-based nature of the agency's proposed qualifications.
There has always been some tension in higher education between reflective courses and those which emphasise competencies. Some universities have long believed that competence is a lower-order concept. Those universities are finding the training agency's skills-based structures particularly difficult to swallow.
Vanessa Parffrey is responsible for the education masters at Exeter university and has been involved with Exeter's bid to become part of the South West Consortium thatwill deliver the new TTA qualifications. Vanessa's group were hoping to build a bridge between the skills based NPQH and the more reflective masters. "We were hoping for a symbiotic relationship, our bid focused on reflective practice but at the same time covered the content in terms of the key areas of competencies." The South West group were bluntly told that the TTA were not interested in the academic gloss. The TTA executive assessing the bid advised the group: "What we are looking for is a straightforward training bid." Ironically business MBAs have moved away from skills based structures and business ethics are now a core element in many MBA programmes. This has happened in response to demand for a more reflective learning style. Not all academics were pessimistic about the impact the TTA qualifications are likely to have. Some thought that the emphasis on continuing professional development could only be good for masters level courses and that many teachers would want to move on from the TTA qualifications and take the full masters. Harry Tomlinson at Leeds Metropolitan university believes that the TTA are: "Genuinely trying to produce a qualification after consultation." He felt that the two qualifications could exist side by side and that: "universities will work very hard to ensure that their masters degrees wrap around these other qualifications." The TES survey would appear to show that process in operation.
The TTA has identified five key components for their NPQH qualification. The majority of masters courses claimed to cover all five and most universities had either changed their masters to dovetail with the TTA structure or were planning to do so. Additional subjects offered by universities included: education law, management of change, organisations theory, evaluation and inspection for school effectiveness and vision, values and leadership. Most universities planned to accredit TTA qualifications through the APEL process and the TTA's spokesman told the TES that previous learning and experience would be credited: "As long as candidates can demonstrate through records of achievement that they have met the requirements."
Hywel Thomas heads the School of education at Birmingham university and argues strongly for the traditional MEd structure. "Our MEd is concerned with developing knowledge, understanding and analysis of the recent wide-ranging reforms in England and Wales. Emphasis is given to strategies and skills for school improvement and issues are located in their political and social context." Hywel contrasts this with a TTA structure he sees as narrow and assessment driven. The TTA control over funding, course approval and accreditation gives the agency: "An enormously monopolistic position which cannot be healthy." Hywel is also concerned with time, a point taken up by John Cocking from East London. "People are very busy in schools, there's only a finite amount of time available, realistically they are only going to do one qualification."
The Labour Party manifesto promised that headteachers would be required to have a professional qualification, a commitment that has been welcomed by most observers in education. But if the required qualification is to be the NPQH then the prognosis for the taught masters degree looks grim.
As to the future of the education masters, many academics have adopted a 'wait and see' policy, willing to give the TTA the benefit of the doubt. But others are concerned about the viability of the courses they run and share Hywel Thomas's concern "about whether the centre always gets it right".
THE TES SURVEY OF MASTERS COURSES
* More than 3500 students are enrolled on masters courses, paying an average of Pounds 1,750 for the experience. Costs vary widely from the remarkably cheap Pounds 550 at Kingston, to a top of the range Pounds 2,538 at Cardiff. In general the more skills-based MBAs and MScs tend to be more expensive than the MAs and MEds.
* The full-time course has virtually disappeared. Universities have acknowledged the need to offer a flexible product by dividing their courses into modules * Many will offer the possibility of distance learning, some through out-stations, while most will assist the student by crediting prior learning and relevant experience (APL).
* Assessment is usually by coursework and dissertation, though about 20 per cent of courses will set a written paper. Guidelines for dissertations are also varied with a range between 12,000 and 25,000 words.
A NOT SO TYPICAL PROVIDER
* The Open University MA in education is a modular course. There are 16 modules to choose from, of which two focus on management issues. Students are expected to complete three modules, usually over three years.
* One of the management modules deals with leadership and the other with management in action. Emphasis is put on the importance of interpersonal skills in management. Students are expected to reflect on the nature of educational management and the problems involved in defining competencies and professional capability.
* Unusually the course has no dissertation; instead students are set a series of assignments with a written examination at the end of the course.
* Ron Glatter is professor of education at the OU and argues that the courses are "practically useful and intellectually rewarding". The OU is also the distance-learning provider for the Teacher Training Agency's National Professional Qualification for Headship in partnership with the National Association of Head Teachers