7. Issues of curriculum development

Universities now offer a plethora of undergraduate degrees to both enhance their profile and to draw a larger number of students each year. This thinking has seeped into taught postgraduate master’s degree programmes too, with more specialist subject specific degree streams being launched. However, curriculum design need not become an increasingly complex process, especially if the programme is structured in a logical way. However there are numerous circumstances that require valid consideration when developing an effective taught postgraduate programme which this section seeks to consider.

7.1 Curriculum development process

Postgraduate programmes are much more responsive to prevailing market conditions than their undergraduate siblings, since there are no HEFCE funded places and students are more proactive and informed when choosing their postgraduate institution from their prior experiences of studying within the higher education environment. With fees likely to rise in future years, it is vitally important that when developing the academic programme that students’ expectations are placed at the very centre. Whereas undergraduate degrees are fairly prescriptive in their requirements of key skills and programme learning outcomes for economics degrees, postgraduate programmes offer a wider field for flexibility and thus are more specialist in nature. This flexibility should be used to tailor the master’s degree programme to suit the current student market demands in order to attract a viable number of students for the postgraduate programme. All too often, academics want to teach a subject specialism, believing we know what students should be taught. However, with greater transparency and understanding of master’s degree programmes, and students’ treating their education as an investment, ignoring students’ desires will only lead to falling student numbers.

When devising the curriculum it is no longer a case of deciding which modules should be provided in delivering each specific degree stream. Rather, you also need to consider the holistic situation in relation to how students are supported in their learning, from the traditional taught content provision, to thinking about the most appropriate teaching strategies to employ for each specific topic to promote enhanced learning. Finally, developing and facilitating engagement activities to encourage student engagement in their subject and to ultimately equip them with the skills needed for their careers post studies need to be considered. Thus developing the educational programme is now about the ‘whole package’ when designing a course that will be attractive to students.

When developing a new degree stream, it is logical to begin with the aims and objectives of the course. To tease out these details it is pertinent to write a programme specification, outlining the knowledge, skills, understanding and further attributes a student is expected to have acquired upon completion of their studies. The academic side provides details on the proposed teaching, module provision, learning methods, assessment and how the programme relates to the QAA’s qualifications framework. This document needs to establish the necessary links between these attributes and, importantly, institutional objectives, through providing the rationale for the entire course, systematically demonstrating that there is a gap in the current market, for both students and employers, and that the programme fits within the strategic direction of the department’s faculty and the overall objectives of the institution. There needs to be a clear distinct statement about how the proposed course differentiates from other universities’ offerings, whether it will have a significant material effect upon courses which are already provided and the likely numbers of students that it is expected to attract.

Since universities are facing significant funding cuts, there has been an added emphasis on examining departments’ financial health and evaluating programmes independently for their commercial viability. Hence in these increasingly business-orientated times each programme or additional degree stream must conclusively demonstrate its commercial potential and the number of students which must be attracted to reach ‘break even’. This business case is typically handled by the faculty’s/school’s finance director to give some independence from the academic members who hold vested interests in ensuring the programme is approved. When this hurdle is overcome it is still important to reduce the risk of financial liabilities should the programme fail to attract enough students to make the course viable, so it is important to include an opportunity to cancel the programme if this situation arises.

The programme specification acts to focus minds by bringing together all the various elements in one document which will face various levels of scrutiny internally and will need to pass through the peer justification process within the institution to establish the programme formally. The content usually included in this document covers the following points:

  • academic aims of the programme
  • programme structure
  • learning outcomes, transferable and key skills
  • teaching strategies
  • evaluation and quality assurance
  • admission requisites.

Traditionally, there are a number of ways you can set out the programme specification. The top-down approach involves setting the high-level aims and objectives, identifying the gap within the marketplace, establishing the modules needed, devising the material and which faculty members specialities are required, the appropriate learning strategies and further activities which could enhance students’ consolidation of the material. Alternatively, the opposite approach can be employed, or sometimes a mixture is pursued. However, when establishing the programme, the advantage of the top-down approach is that thoughtful planning can lead to a maximisation of the potential economies of scale which exist within the academic environment.

Figure 3 The dynamic state of curriculum development

Furthermore, bringing all these elements together for the programme specification should not be a one-off static process. The process of curriculum development needs to be responsive to students’ current market demands, and through including current students’ evaluation of their learning experiences within this model as well as market demand change dictated through the aims and objectives. Thus this process should be on-going to ensure the programme is constantly relevant, leading to changes within stated objectives and/or content and teaching strategies employed, as depicted in Figure 3.

7.2 Economies of scale: combining an academically coherent yet flexible framework

In the provision of a Master’s degree programme there are inherent economies of scale; from the captive undergraduate student cohort for marketing your postgraduate degrees, to shared administrative costs across all department programmes. However, most important of these for us to consider are specialist faculty members whose research interests combine with postgraduate modules offered, and from the provision of combining degree streams to form a common programme of core economics modules which will form the basis of students’ advanced knowledge of economic concepts to yield a rounded master’s level programme. As previously noted, when developing a new degree stream, you need to focus your efforts on providing specific degree streams which match students’ interests. The generic MSc in Economics is offered at numerous institutions and gives little opportunity to differentiate a department from the competition of established institutions who already offer this degree stream. Hence, as an alternative the proposed degree stream could focus on the market demand and play to the department’s and academics’ strengths as these are more important in attracting students to the course.

Curriculum design clearly plays a crucial role in developing an academically coherent yet flexible PGT degree framework to equip students with an advanced level of understanding. One option frequently favoured is to divide the course structure between the autumn and spring semesters; the former allows the provision of underpinning theoretical concepts, with the degree specific, applied/practical modules following on during the spring semester. With these skills, students are then prepared to undertake their substantial independent research (dissertation) component during the summer semester to showcase their full skills and develop their research techniques. Due to the nature of this underpinning theory, which has to be broad and thorough in training economics students for their careers after their degree, there are numerous synergies between any degree streams. Therefore, academically, these initial modules would be broadly similar and could be more coherently and rigorously provided in one core module for each key economics subject, namely Macroeconomics, Microeconomics and Econometrics. This helps ensure that students are exposed to the full range of advanced levels of theoretical knowledge of what would be expected from an Economics Masters student without important subjects being excluded, as they do not fit in with the applied aspects of the degree stream they are pursuing.

Typically, a PGT degree programme requires the completion of 180 credits. Each semester thus requires 60 credits to be taken, with each module usually consisting of either 15 credits or 20 credits, equivalent to three or four modules respectively; although of course exactly how many postgraduate credits each module constitutes is usually defined by the school within which you are based. Given that the three core modules would best be provided during the autumn semester, this would account for the entire allocation if each module is 20 credits, or leaves one extra module if a less extensive 15-credits model was adopted (e.g. Research Methods).

In contrast, the spring semester is devoted entirely to the provision of specialist taught modules and sees the cohort split into their degree streams, with the provision of optional/elective modules where they can be accommodated. By following this structure, degree streams can make best use of faculty members, with those members who have their research interests aligned with specific streams providing the specialist spring semester modules, and where possible, members whose interests lie away from these areas providing either the advanced core courses, or substituting for those faculty members in undergraduate tuition.

The hidden strength of this block structure lies in the flexible adjustment process to respond to the dynamic state of the postgraduate market. Through offering a common core autumn semester and with two subject specific applied modules in the spring semester, an additional degree stream can be offered with only the need to provide a minimum of two new course-specific modules during the spring semester. Moreover, this also works in reverse if a stream is withdrawn, for example, due to below prescribed student quota numbers to make the course viable or staff unavailability, so that only two modules then need to be dropped. In this process, students could be notified and moved to another stream if they consent, and still follow a broad economics degree albeit with a different specialism. Furthermore, optional modules can be open to the whole cohort, as all would have the necessary pre-requisites to follow these modules, thereby saving on the number of options which would need to be provided through scale economies.

This system acknowledges the dynamic state of the curriculum design, as academic coherence of students engaged on the programme and accompanying feedback would ensure that a high-quality rigorous autumn semester in core advanced economic principles was provided, together with the flexibility to allow the expansion or contraction of taught postgraduate degree streams effortlessly. The constant evaluation feeding through to the content and teaching strategies employed ensures the programme remains strong but flexible, all without changing the fundamentals of the curriculum structure whilst efficiently utilising faculty members.

Lastly, serious consideration needs to be given to the entry requirements. As noted, any student who has a straight economics undergraduate degree, or a joint degree with at least 50 per cent of their components in economics courses, together with meeting the overall entry requirements of a second-class degree, would face little problem. However, consideration needs to be given to obtaining the transcripts of students with joint degrees, since they could possess weak skills in economics but hide these problems by boosting their degree average in their other degree component. Hence, it might be in the students’ best interests to follow the pre-Master’s programme if they are likely to perform poorly in the PGT programme. Secondly, there are issues as to whether it is permissible to allow students with minimum economics training to follow a specific programme, especially those who have a business background but limited knowledge of economics. These students would need to attend the pre-sessional course in order to acquire the full range of skills needed; whether they have the skills necessary to succeed would be a judgement call falling to an experienced academic admissions tutor.

Alternatively, institutions could avoid this through requiring a prescribed set of economics training prior to arrival, whilst requiring applicants not meeting this, yet possessing most of the necessary skills, to polish them through the pre-sessional. This particularly applies to those returning to education after being employed in an economics-related position, but do not necessarily have traditional qualifications.

The challenge is to widen the entry requirement scope to allow those students who have the ability to succeed without admitting those students who would perform poorly and for their own individual welfare would be better off pursuing the pre-Master’s programme. Often this is a difficult judgement call requiring a case-by-case review of the candidate.