4. The national subject benchmarks and the QA infrastructure

The first essential thing to be addressed in designing a curriculum is to ensure compliance with the requirements of the QAA, which is the regulatory body charged with the responsibility of upholding quality and standards in universities and colleges. QAA does this through its Quality Code, which ‘sets out the Expectations all providers of UK education are required to meet’.[1] For the present purposes, the most important parts of the Quality Code relate to the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ), subject benchmark statements, programme specifications and programme approval. Many, if not all, of the steps needed to ensure compliance will be imposed on disciplines through the medium of institutional procedures.

4.1 The Framework for Higher Education (FHEQ)

The FHEQ sets the general framework for degree programmes, and the QAA is clear that it ‘should be regarded as a framework, not a straitjacket’.[1] At the heart of the FHEQ is an attempt to ensure that qualifications awarded by HEIs maintain consistent standards, with a common expectation about student achievements. It is important to note that the ‘fundamental premise of the FHEQ is that qualifications should be awarded on the basis of achievement of outcomes and attainment rather than years of study’.[2] This underpins the approach to be taken in designing a curriculum and in preparing the associated documentation. There is a wealth of detail in the QAA documentation, so I will focus on a few key issues that need to be built into curriculum design.

First, it is worth noting that the FHEQ does not constitute a credit framework. Many UK universities do operate on a credit framework, but this is not mandatory under the QAA rules. However, QAA does provide guidance on academic credit arrangements.[3] If your institution does use a credit framework, your programme will need to recognise that in the way it is put together. The Burgess Group in 2004 called for the adoption of a common HE credit system in the UK in order to facilitate the transfer of students between institutions. Students could accumulate credits that would then be recognised in terms of the level of achievement when they wished to transfer between institutions, or wanted to take time out from study and re-enter at a later date. Under the recommended scheme (Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (CATS)) a typical full-time year of study would equate to 120 ‘CATS’. For example, a programme might be based on 6 units per year, each taking the value of 20 CATS. Increasingly, many institutions – not to mention students and employers – are aware of the European context, and there has been a move towards trying to improve mobility of students around Europe, embodied in the so-called ‘Bologna Process’. Under this protocol, the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) was developed to encourage mutual recognition of programmes of study and qualifications across Europe. The principle underlying this system is that the learning outcomes (and associated workload) of a typical full-time year of academic formal learning represent 60 ECTS. In other words, 1 ECTS is approximately equal to 2 CATS.

Unfortunately, life is rarely so simple. In the UK, 1 CATS has become associated with a total study time of 10 hours, whereas 1 ECTS is associated with between 25 and 30 hours of study. This has inhibited UK institutions from engaging fully with the Bologna Process, as workload in the UK is perceived to be too low to satisfy the demands of ECTS, even if it can be argued that the learning outcomes are achieved to an equivalent standard. However, setting that aside, this chapter will refer where appropriate to CATS and ECTS as if they were interchangeable on a 2:1 basis.

Where this becomes important for curriculum design is in specifying the overall requirements for an honours degree or any of the intermediate exit points that are available on most programmes. Table 1 summarises the credit values normally associated with each part of an undergraduate programme in England.

Table 1: Credit values and curriculum design

HE qualification as in FHEQ


FHEQ level

Minimum credits (CATS)

Minimum credits at the level of the qualification


Cert HE






Dip HE





approx 120

Bachelor’s degree with honours






Integrated Master’s degree






A normal interpretation of this is that to be awarded an honours degree, a student must have accumulated 120 CATS (60 ECTS) per part, with at least 90 CATS (45 ECTS) at each FHEQ level. The final row of this table will be discussed in section 5 of this chapter. Institutions will no doubt have their own rules and regulations for implementing the framework, so you may have no real choice in choosing the overall credit structure. Nonetheless, it is worth being aware of the structure, as it underpins curriculum design. Knowing and understanding the rules can sometimes create opportunities for creating some flexibility in design that will be discussed in section 9.

[2] Ibid.

4.2 Subject benchmarks

When designing a curriculum, a fundamental requirement is to ensure that the contents are consistent with the relevant subject benchmarks. The economics benchmark statements, which were amended in 2007, can be found at


If you study the benchmarks, you will find that they are not very constraining, in the sense that they summarise in a commonsense way the components that most economists would agree should lie at the heart of any economics curriculum. In other words, the benchmarks specify a range of features that we would look for in any economics degree programme. The details are not provided here, as this would be repetition of the benchmarks themselves. Suffice it to note that they encompass the aims of degree programmes in economics, and specify the subject knowledge and the subject-specific and other skills that students are expected to accrue during their studies. The economist’s way of thinking and the importance of transferable concepts are also emphasised.

In other words, the benchmarks set out the attributes that students successfully completing a degree programme would be expected to have gained. Notice that the way in which the benchmark is set out is helpful when setting out to draft the programme specification, which is another essential part of developing a new curriculum.

4.3 The programme specification

The programme specification is a key document. It is intended to be a definitive statement of the contents and organisation of a programme, so that students and other stakeholders can find out all they need to know about it. To put it in the words of QAA:

‘A programme specification is a concise description of the intended learning outcomes of an HE programme, and the means by which the outcomes are achieved and demonstrated.’[1]

Although intended for students, many programme specifications have become documents dominated by jargon and ‘education-speak’. However, where programme specifications are to be part of the Key Information Sets that all universities are required to publish for potential applicants, this is likely to lead to redrafting of specifications to ensure that they are appropriately student friendly.

The emphasis on learning outcomes in the design of programme specifications is potentially helpful and can be seen as a foil to the obsession with contact hours that keeps appearing in ministerial statements and in the press. In other words, what is important is what a student can have achieved by successfully completing a programme of study, rather than how study hours are divided between direct contact with academic staff and independent study time and other forms of learning.

Individual units are also expected to have their own learning outcomes associated with them, and the programme specification then shows how those units can be combined into a coherent programme. Having said that, the QAA also emphasises that:

‘a programme specification is not simply an aggregation of unit outcomes; it relates to the learning and attributes developed by the programme as a whole and which, in general, are typically in HE more than the sum of the parts’.[2]

Most HEIs will have a standard template for the presentation of programme specifications, which will set the rules for drafting them. Notice that having a programme specification is not optional, as it is one of the key documents that will be audited as part of the QAA Institutional Review. Programmes will be judged by whether they deliver on the claims that are embedded in the specifications.

[2] Ibid.

4.4 Programme approval

Chapter B1 of the QAA Quality Code contains guidance about programme approval.[1] Again, HEIs will have measures in place at institutional level to ensure compliance with the Code. However, when designing a curriculum, there are some key things to be aware of. In particular, there will be a formal process to be followed in taking a programme through to approval, which is the institution’s way of ensuring that it is adhering to the Quality Code. This will involve some sort of external scrutiny. You will need to be aware of the timescale over which the approval process will be spread. Missing key deadlines can delay the launch of the new programme, possibly by a whole year. Box 1 shows one university’s timescale for the approval of a new programme.

A similar schedule applies for major changes to existing programmes. The decision on when to launch would also depend upon being able to advertise and recruit. Ultimately, this may be the deciding factor in choosing how quickly to launch. Timescales are likely to vary from institution to institution.

Box 1: Programme approval at the University of Southampton – timescale

For a programme to be approved for launch in September of year (t):

October (t – 1): Faculty Programmes Committee receives notification of new programmes expected to be seeking academic approval during the coming academic year.

Late October (t – 1): University Programme Committee receives report from Faculty Committees, and checks strategic fit of proposed new programmes

January (t): Faculty receives programme specification and associated documentation for detailed scrutiny, with independent external report.

February (t): University Programme Committee receives report from Faculty recommending academic approval.

March (t): Approved programmes entered into student record system and constituent units timetabled.

Note: This timescale refers purely to the academic approval process; more time is likely to be needed for marketing and recruitment.