Medieval era to 18th century
The master's degree dates back to the origin of European universities, with a Papal bull of 1233 decreeing that anyone admitted to the mastership in the University of Toulouse should be allowed to teach freely in any other university. The original meaning of the master's degree was thus that someone who had been admitted to the rank (degree) of master (i.e. teacher) in one university should be admitted to the same rank in other universities. This gradually became formalised as the licentia docendi (licence to teach). Originally, masters and doctors were not distinguished, but by the 15th century it had become customary in the English universities to refer to the teachers in the lower faculties (arts and grammar) as masters and those in the higher faculties as doctors. Initially, the Bachelor of Arts (BA) was awarded for the study of the trivium and the Master of Arts (MA) for the study of the quadrivium.
From the late Middle Ages until the nineteenth century, the pattern of degrees was therefore to have a bachelor's and master's degree in the lower faculties and to have bachelor's and doctorates in the higher faculties. In the United States, the first master's degrees (Magister Artium, or Master of Arts) were awarded at Harvard University soon after its foundation. In Scotland, the pre-Reformation universities (St Andrews, Glasgow and Aberdeen) developed so that the Scottish MA became their first degree, while in Oxford, Cambridge and Trinity College, Dublin, the MA was awarded to BA graduates of a certain standing without further examination from the late seventeenth century, its main purpose being to confer full membership of the university. At Harvard the 1700 regulations required that candidates for the master's degree had to pass a public examination, but by 1835 this was awarded Oxbridge-style three years after the BA.
The nineteenth century saw a great expansion in the variety of master's degrees offered. At the start of the century, the only master's degree was the MA, and this was normally awarded without any further study or examination. The Master in Surgery degree was introduced by the University of Glasgow in 1815. By 1861 this had been adopted throughout Scotland as well as by Cambridge and Durham in England and the University of Dublin in Ireland. When the Philadelphia College of Surgeons was established in 1870, it too conferred the Master of Surgery, "the same as that in Europe".
In Scotland, Edinburgh maintained separate BA and MA degrees until the mid nineteenth century, although there were major doubts as to the quality of the Scottish degrees of this period. In 1832 Lord Brougham, the Lord Chancellor and an alumnus of the University of Edinburgh, told the House of Lords that "In England the Universities conferred degrees after a considerable period of residence, after much labour performed, and if they were not in all respects so rigorous as the statutes of the Universities required, nevertheless it could not be said, that Masters of Arts were created at Oxford and Cambridge as they were in Scotland, without any residence, or without some kind of examination. In Scotland all the statutes of the Universities which enforced conditions on the grant of degrees were a dead letter."
It was not until 1837 that separate examinations were reintroduced for the MA in England, at the newly established Durham University (even though, as in the ancient English universities, this was to confer full membership), to be followed in 1840 by the similarly new University of London, which was only empowered by its charter to grant degrees by examination. However, by the middle of the century the MA as an examined second degree was again under threat, with Durham moving to awarding it automatically to those who gained honours in the BA in 1857, along the lines of the Oxbridge MA, and Edinburgh following the other Scottish universities in awarding the MA as its first degree, in place of the BA, from 1858. At the same time, new universities were being established around the then British Empire along the lines of London, including examinations for the MA: the University of Sydney in Australia and the Queen's University of Ireland in 1850, and the Universities of Bombay (now the University of Mumbai), Madras and Calcutta in India in 1857.
In the US, the revival of master's degrees as an examined qualification began in 1856 at the University of North Carolina, followed by the University of Michigan in 1859, although the idea of a master's degree as an earned second degree was not well established until the 1870s, alongside the PhD as the terminal degree. Sometimes it was possible to earn an MA either by examination or by seniority in the same institution, e.g. in Michigan the "in course" MA was introduced in 1848 and was last awarded in 1882, while the "on examination" MA was introduced in 1859.
Probably the most important master's degree introduced in the 19th century was the Master of Science (MS in the US, MSc in the UK). At the University of Michigan this was introduced in two forms in 1858: "in course", first awarded in 1859, and "on examination", first awarded in 1862. The "in course" MS was last awarded in 1876. In Britain, however, the degree took a while longer to arrive. When London introduced its Faculty of Sciences in 1858, the University was granted a new charter giving it the power "to confer the several Degrees of Bachelor, Master, and Doctor, in Arts, Laws, Science, Medicine, Music", but the degrees it awarded in science were the Bachelor of Science and the Doctor of Science. The same two degrees, again omitting the master's, were awarded at Edinburgh, despite the MA being the standard undergraduate degree for Arts in Scotland. In 1862, a Royal Commission suggested that Durham should award master's degrees in theology and science (with the suggested abbreviations MT and MS, contrary to later British practice of using MTh or MTheol and MSc for these degrees), but its recommendations were not enacted. In 1877, Oxford introduced the Master of Natural Science, along with the Bachelor of Natural Science, to stand alongside the MA and BA degrees and be awarded to students who took their degrees in the honours school of natural sciences. In 1879 a statute to actually establish the faculty of Natural Sciences at Oxford was promulgated, but in 1880 a proposal to rename the degree as a Master of Science was rejected along with a proposal to grant Masters of Natural Sciences a Master of Arts degree, in order to make them full members of the University. This scheme would appear to have then been quietly dropped, with Oxford going on to award BAs and MAs in science.
The Master of Science (MSc) degree was finally introduced in Britain in 1878 at Durham, followed by the new Victoria University in 1881. At the Victoria University both the MA and MSc followed the lead of Durham's MA in requiring a further examination for those with an ordinary bachelor's degree but not for those with honours.
At the start of the twentieth century there were therefore four different sorts of master's degree in the UK: the Scottish MA, granted as a first degree; the Master of Arts (Oxbridge and Dublin), granted to all BA graduates a certain period after their first degree without further study; master's degrees that could be gained either by further study or by gaining an honours degree (which, at the time in the UK involved further study beyond the ordinary degree, as it still does in Scotland and some Commonwealth countries); and master's degrees that could only be obtained by further study (including all London master's degrees). In 1903, the London Daily News criticised the practice of Oxford and Cambridge, calling their MAs "the most stupendous of academic frauds" and "bogus degrees". Ensuing correspondence pointed out that "A Scotch M.A., at the most, is only the equivalent of an English B.A." and called for common standards for degrees, while defenders of the ancient universities said that "the Cambridge M.A. does not pretend to be a reward of learning" and that "it is rather absurd to describe one of their degrees as a bogus one because other modern Universities grant the same degree for different reasons".
In 1900, Dartmouth College introduced the Master of Commercial Science (MCS), first awarded in 1902. This was the first master's degree in business, the forerunner of the modern MBA. The idea quickly crossed the Atlantic, with Manchester establishing a Faculty of Commerce, awarding Bachelor and Master of Commerce degrees, in 1903. Over the first half of the century the automatic master's degrees for honours graduates vanished as honours degrees became the standard undergraduate qualification in the UK. In the 1960s, new Scottish universities (with the exception of Dundee, which inherited the undergraduate MA from St Andrews) reintroduced the BA as their undergraduate degree in Arts, restoring the MA to its position as a postgraduate qualification. Oxford and Cambridge retained their MAs, but renamed many of their postgraduate bachelor's degrees in the higher faculties as master's degrees, e.g. the Cambridge LLB became the LLM in 1982, and the Oxford BLitt, BPhil (except in philosophy) and BSc became the MLitt, MPhil and MSc.
In 1983, the Engineering Council issued a "'Statement on enhanced and extended undergraduate engineering degree courses", proposing the establishment of a four-year first degree (Master of Engineering). These were up and running by the mid 1980s and were followed in the early 1990s by the MPhys for physicists and since then integrated master's degrees in other sciences such as MChem, MMath, and MGeol, and in some institutions general or specific MSci (Master in Science) and MArts (Master in Arts) degrees. This development was noted by the Dearing Report into UK Higher Education in 1997, which called for the establishment of a national framework of qualifications and identified five different routes to master's degrees:
- Four year (five in Scotland) undergraduate degrees such as the MEng
- Conversion degrees, sometimes below the standard of undergraduate degrees in the same subject
- The undergraduate arts degree of the ancient universities of Scotland
- Specialist postgraduate programmes, such as the MA and MSc
- The Oxbridge MA, awarded without additional work
This led to the establishment of the Quality Assurance Agency, which was charged with drawing up the framework.
In 2000 renewed pressure was put on Oxbridge MAs in the UK Parliament, with Labour MP Jackie Lawrence introducing an early day motion calling for them to be scrapped and telling the Times Higher Education it was a "discriminatory practice" and that it "devalues and undermines the efforts of students at other universities". The following month the Quality Assurance Agency announced the results of a survey of 150 major employers showing nearly two thirds mistakenly thought the Cambridge MA was a postgraduate qualification and just over half made the same error regarding the Edinburgh MA, with QAA chief executive John Randall calling the Oxbridge MA "misleading and anachronistic".
The QAA released the first "framework for higher education qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland" in January 2001. This specified learning outcomes for M-level (master's) degrees and advised that the title "Master" should only be used for qualifications that met those learning outcomes in full. It addressed many of the Dearing Report's concerns, specifying that shorter courses at H-level (honours), e.g. conversion courses, should be styled Graduate Diploma or Graduate Certificate rather than as master's degrees, but confirmed that the extended undergraduate degrees were master's degrees, saying that "Some Masters degrees in science and engineering are awarded after extended undergraduate programmes that last, typically, a year longer than Honours degree programmes". It also addressed the Oxbridge MA issue, noting that "the MAs granted by the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge are not academic qualifications". The first "framework for qualifications of Higher Education Institutes in Scotland", also published in January 2001, used the same qualifications descriptors, adding in credit values that specified that a stand-alone master should be 180 credits and a "Masters (following an integrated programme from undergraduate to Masters level study)" should be 600 credits with a minimum of 120 at M-level. It was specified that the title "Master" should only be used for qualifications that met the learning outcomes and credit definitions, although it was noted that "A small number of universities in Scotland have a long tradition of labelling certain first degrees as 'MA'. Reports of Agency reviews of such provision will relate to undergraduate benchmarks and will make it clear that the title reflects Scottish custom and practice, and that any positive judgement on standards should not be taken as implying that the outcomes of the programme were at postgraduate level."
The Bologna declaration in 1999 started the Bologna Process, leading to the creation of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). This established a three-cycle bachelor's—master's—doctorate classification of degrees, leading to the adoption of master's degrees across the continent, often replacing older long-cycle qualifications such as the Magister (arts), Diplom (sciences) and state registration (professional) awards in Germany. As the process continued, descriptors were introduced for all three levels in 2004, and ECTS credit guidelines were developed. This led to questions as to the status of the integrated master's degrees and one-year master's degrees in the UK. However, the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and the Framework for Qualifications of Higher Education Institutes in Scotland have both been aligned with the overarching framework for the EHEA with these being accepted as master's-level qualifications.