Second-cycle, masters degrees in Ireland, as in the United Kingdom, come in two main types, usually referred to as “taught” and “research” masters. The nomenclature is somewhat misleading as both types include research and both require input from academic staff. The taught masters degree has a higher element of structured contact with a cohort of students and a more limited individual thesis. The research masters may have little or no formal group teaching and consists mainly of an individualised research programme under an academic supervisor. The research masters is a precursor to the PhD programme and very often students who begin a research masters programme switch to a doctoral programme without completing a masters thesis. Different quality assurance regimes apply to the two types of degree.
The taught masters is subject a programme accreditation, and periodic review leading to re-accreditation, in much the same way as first cycle programmes. HETAC considers each research masters to be a separate programme of study to be individually accredited. The higher education institution (HEI) makes an application with details of the proposed research programme and particularly the proposed research supervisor. This is evaluated against a set of published criteria. There is also a process of whereby fields of study within an individual HEI are approved to submit candidates. When institutions have acquired a track record in bringing learners to graduation by the research masters route, they may apply for accreditation to maintain their own research “register”, approving the individual programmes of study for themselves, rather than submitting each candidate’s application to HETAC.
HETAC’s approach to quality assurance in masters education and research has been driven by the need to balance the legitimate desire for autonomy on the part of the institutions (and the efficiencies that may derive from locally operated procedures) and the concern to maintain high standards in a transparent manner, particularly given the scepticism in some quarters about the appropriateness of undertaking research training outside of traditional universities. The quality assurance of masters and research degrees was addressed in a self-evaluation published for an international peer review of HETAC in March 2006. The complex policy was found to be warranted in the circumstances but recommended for review and possible simplification as research work outside of the universities finds more widespread acceptance.
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