The system of academic degrees in the University of Oxford can be confusing to those not familiar with it. This is not merely because many degree titles date from the Middle Ages, but also because many changes have been haphazardly introduced in recent years. For example, the (medieval) B.D., B.M., B.C.L., etc., are postgraduate degrees, while the (modern) M.Phys., M.Eng., etc., are undergraduate degrees.
In postnominals, "University of Oxford" is normally abbreviated "Oxon.", which is short for (Academia) Oxoniensis: e.g. M.A. (Oxon.), although within the university itself the abbreviation "Oxf" is now officially preferred, due to its unpronounceability.
The Bachelor's degree is awarded soon after the end of the degree course (three or four years after matriculation). Until recently, all undergraduates studied for the degree of Bachelor of Arts. The B.F.A. was introduced in 1978. Holders of the degrees of B.A. and B.F.A. both proceed in time to the degree of Master of Arts (M.A.). Note that the B.A is still awarded even for some science courses, such as the three-year Physics degree. The degree of Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) has never been awarded as an undergraduate degree at Oxford; it used to be awarded as a graduate qualification, however.
The B.Th. is awarded primarily to students of the various Theological Colleges and Halls enjoying some sort of associate status with the University, such as Wycliffe Hall, St Stephen's House, Ripon College (Cuddesdon) and the former Westminster College, Oxford. Usually, these students are candidates for the ordained ministry of one of the mainstream Christian denominations, but may be drawn from any faith background or none at the discretion of the College or Hall. It should not be confused with the degree of bachelor of divinity (B.D.), which is a postgraduate degree.
The B.Ed. was formerly awarded to students at Westminster College, Oxford, Culham College of Education, and The Lady Spencer Churchill College of Education in conjunction with the University.
In the 1990s the degrees of Master of Engineering, etc., were introduced to increase public recognition of the four-year undergraduate science programmes in those subjects:
The holders of these degrees have the academic precedence and standing of B.A.s until the twenty-first term from matriculation, when they rank as M.A.s. However, from 2009 onwards, they wear the academic dress of B.A.s even after they gain M.A. rank. In contrast, science undergraduates at Cambridge may be granted the additional degree of Master of Natural Sciences (M.Sci.) while continuing to award them the B.A. (and the subsequent M.A.). Note that biology undergraduates are still awarded the B.A./M.A., as are all other undergraduates, whether their degree courses last three years or four years.
The degree of Master of Arts is awarded to B.A.s and B.F.A.s twenty-one terms (seven years) after matriculation, without further examination, upon the payment of a nominal fee. Recipients of undergraduate masters' degrees are not eligible to incept as M.A., but are afforded the same privileges after the statutory twenty-one terms.
This system dates from the Middle Ages, when the study of the liberal arts took seven years. In between matriculation and the licence to teach which was awarded at the end of an undergraduate's studies (whereafter he was incepted as a Master of Arts), he took an intermediate degree known as the baccalaureate, or degree of Bachelor of Arts. In the University of Paris the baccalaureate was granted soon after responsions (the examination for matriculation), whereas in Oxford and Cambridge the bachelor's degree was postponed to a much later stage, and gradually developed a greater significance. While the requirements for the bachelor's degree increased, those for the master's degree gradually diminished. An examination along modern lines was introduced for the M.A. degree in 1800, but this was abolished in 1807.
While the length of the undergraduate degree course has been shortened to three or four years, the University of Oxford still requires seven years to pass before the awarding of the M.A. The universities of Cambridge and Dublin have similar systems. In the four ancient universities of Scotland, the B.A. has become obsolete, and the Scottish M.A. is awarded on completion of the three year undergraduate ordinary degree course in the arts, four years for an honours degree.
The shortening of the degree course reflects the fact that much of the teaching of the liberal arts was taken over by high schools, and undergraduates now enter university at a much older age.
Traditionally the M.A. represented full membership of the University: until 2000, only M.A.s (as well as doctors of divinity, medicine, and civil law) were members of Convocation, the main legislative assembly of the University, which today only elects the Chancellor and the professor of Poetry. Before then, members of the university who had not yet been made M.A. were known as "junior members", while those who were M.A.s were "senior members".
Despite some scepticism of the awarding of M.A. degrees without the requirement of further academic residency after the receipt of the B.A., supporters of the practice have argued both for its value as a historical artefact and as a reflection of the rigorous academic demands of the Oxbridge B.A.
In medieval times a student could not study some subjects until he had completed his study in the liberal arts. These were known as the higher faculties. The degrees in Science and Letters were added in the 19th century, and the degree in Philosophy was added in 1914 (although the D.Phil. is not considered a "higher doctorate"). The higher bachelor's degree programme is generally a taught programme of one or two years for graduates. In Medicine and Surgery this corresponds to the clinical phase of training, after which they are accorded the courtesy title "Doctor". The B.D. and B.Mus. are open only to Oxford graduates who have done well in the B.A. examinations in divinity and music respectively. The B.Phil./M.Phil. is a part-taught, part-research degree which is often a stepping stone to the D.Phil.
The M.Ch. is the higher degree in surgery, and is awarded on similar conditions to higher doctorates such as the D.M., e.g., ten years must have passed since the lower degree in the faculty. In medieval times the distinction between a master and doctor was not significant, and both words signified the higher degree in a faculty. The title "master" is used instead of "doctor", as surgeons in England are traditionally known as "Mr" rather than "Dr".
Due to pressure from employers and overseas applicants to conform with United States practice, which is also that of most other UK universities, the B.Litt., B.Sc., and B.Phil. (in degrees other than philosophy) were re-titled masters' degrees.
The M.Jur. and M.B.A. are awarded after taught courses, the M.Jur. being the equivalent of the B.C.L. for students from non-common-law backgrounds. The M.St. is a one-year hybrid research/taught course which is the equivalent of the taught master's degree in most other UK universities. The M.Th. is an applied theology course for those intending to enter holy orders. The degree of Master of Education was formerly awarded to students at Westminster College, when that course was validated by the University.
Bachelors in the higher faculties other than Medicine can proceed to a doctorate in the same faculty without further examination, on presentation of evidence of an important contribution to their subject, e.g., published work, research, etc. Doctorates in the higher faculties may also be awarded honoris causa, i.e., as honorary degrees. It is traditional for the Chancellor to be made a D.C.L. jure officio (by virtue of his office). Until the 19th century all bishops who had studied at Oxford were made D.D.s jure officio.
The DPhil is a research degree, modelled on the German and American Ph. D., which was introduced in 1914. Rather atypically, Oxford was the first university in the UK to accept this innovation.
Members of the University of Oxford are ranked according to their degree. The order is as follows :
Within each degree the holders are ranked by the date on which they proceeded to their degree. In the case of people who graduated on the same day they are ranked by alphabetical order.
If the Degree of Master of Biochemistry or Chemistry or Computer Science or Earth Sciences or Engineering or Mathematics or Mathematics and Computer Science or Mathematics and Philosophy or Physics or Physics and Philosophy is held together with a higher degree, the holder will rank in precedence equally with a person who holds the same higher degree together with the Degree of Master of Arts.