6. Case studies of economics programmes

In this section, we will explore some options for curriculum design through a series of case studies showing different approaches to curriculum design.

Case study 1: University A

University A operates a curriculum based on a pattern of 6 units per year carrying a weighting of 20 CATS taught on a long-thin basis. Figure 1 summarises the broad structure of the programme.

Figure 1: University A: a single honours economics programme

The structure of the curriculum is very clear. In Part 1, students take 1 unit each in micro and macro, and 2 units in quantitative methods (one in maths, one in statistics). The remaining credits are made up from optional units; students can take Introduction of Accounting and/or Globalisation and Development (20 CATS units), or can choose to take open units from elsewhere in the university (subject to timetable). These can be drawn from a wide range of other disciplines. 

In Part 2, students again take compulsory units in micro, macro and quantitative methods, which between them count for 50 per cent of the credits. The remaining units are chosen from a list of options, including a range of economics units together with some from accounting, finance, politics and other disciplines.

In Part 3, the only compulsory unit is Applied Econometrics, but students must take at least two from Macroeconomic Theory and Policy, Advanced Microeconomics or Applied Economics Project. A range of economics units are also on offer, and students may take up to 2 units from lists in accounting and management.

A strength of this modular structure is its transparency. The curriculum design allows students some flexibility of choice throughout the programme, whilst ensuring that the core of the programme delivers the programme outcomes required by the subject benchmarks. Notice that students have some control over the theory-applied balance of their programme, exercised through their choice of options.

Students can also choose from a number of joint honours programmes, combining study of economics with Econometrics, Finance, Accounting, Management, Mathematics, Politics or Philosophy. The pattern for one such programme is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: University A: a joint economics programme

Joint honours programmes need careful curriculum design, as there are two sets of subject benchmarks to be delivered. This inevitably imposes constraints on student choice, as there is likely to be less space for optional units. This is apparent in Part 1 of this joint programme, as there is no choice of units at this stage of the programme. Furthermore, economics as a discipline tends to be demanding in terms of core units in Part 1, given the need to cover micro, macro, maths and stats. In this example based on a 6-unit year, these 4 units take up more than half of the first year, thus squeezing the other discipline. 

The notion of an ‘escape route’ embedded in Part 1 (as mentioned in the previous section) can be illustrated through this example. A student entering the single-honours programme could choose the options in Part 1 in such a way as to cover the core units needed for the other discipline of one of the joint-honours programmes, whether that be Politics, or Management etc. The final decision on which programme to pursue is thus delayed until the end of Part 1, so that if a student discovers a keen interest in Politics once having been exposed to the discipline, then he or she would be able to transfer to the alternative stream. It is also important to notice that providing an escape route can work both ways: the structure described here provides a route into single-honours economics as well as out.

Case study 2: University B

University B operates a curriculum based on a pattern of 8 (15 CATS) units per Part. Figure 3 summarises the structure of the curriculum.

Figure 3: University B: a single honours economics programme

In Part 1, students take units in micro and macro, plus 3 units in QM (Introduction to Statistics, Mathematics for Economists and Introduction to Econometrics). Students entering without A-level Mathematics take an additional unit in Basic Mathematical Economics. The remaining credits come from a choice of optional units. In Part 2, students take 3 core units (each rated at 30 CATS), together with a choice of optional units to make up the remaining credits. The programme allows for students to follow language units as options, and then take a year abroad on an ERASMUS placement in year 3, returning to complete Part 3 as a fourth year. In Part 3, students take 1 compulsory unit (Economic Issues: Theory and Policy) that runs over the whole year. This provides students with the opportunity to study particular topical economic issues in detail, and in more depth than can be achieved in a shorter unit. Remaining credits come from a choice of optional units, of which 60 CATS must be from the economics list.

As with University A, the structure of the degree is transparent, and enables  students to achieve the programme outcomes associated with the subject benchmarks in the core units whilst still retaining flexibility of choice in the optional units. This provides the opportunity for students to focus on those areas of economics that especially appeal to them.

University B also runs a number of joint honours programmes, and Figure 4 shows how one of these programmes works.

Figure 4: University B: a joint honours economics programme

This structure is for a joint honours degree in Economics and Politics, with students spending approximately half of their time studying each of the two main disciplines. In Part 1, students take 3 units in economics (micro, macro and QM), and 3 in Politics. There is also a ‘bridging unit’ (State and Economy) that serves to link the two disciplines together. There is also one free optional choice. In Part 2, there is a double unit that covers micro and macro, and another bridging unit (the Economics of Politics). Students then choose options from Economics and from Politics in such a way as to maintain approximate balance between the two disciplines. In Part 3, students take units in International Political Economy and the Political Economy of Globalisation, and then choose the remaining units from options in the two main disciplines.

This structure enables students following the programme to achieve the outcomes required to meet the subject benchmarks for both Economics and for Politics. An advantage of the 8-unit per year pattern over 6 per year is that it is more straightforward to maintain balance between the two disciplines that make up the joint degree. Given University B’s curriculum design, students also have flexibility to choose from a wide range of optional units in each of the disciplines.

Case study 3: University C

University C offers an interesting approach that blends units with different credit ratings. The structure is illustrated in Figure 5.

Figure 5: University C: a single honours economics programme

plus non-credit-bearing modules in Study skills (Part 1) and Careers skills (Part 2).

In Part 1, students follow 20 CATS-rated units in micro and macro, together with two 15 CATS-rated units in QM, streamed depending on whether a student has or has not taken A-level Mathematics. Students then take a 10 CATS unit, with a choice between ‘Economic Perspectives’ and ‘Current Economic Issues’, allowing students to gain a broader perspective on the use of economic analysis. Remaining credits come from a choice of options either in Economics or from other schools. These are mainly 10 CATS, but some are 20. In addition students take a unit that provides study skills, which is not credit-rated.

In Part 2, there are compulsory units in micro (20 CATS) and macro (20 CATS), together with either 2 units in quantitative economics (15 CATS each) or econometrics (also 15 CATS each). There is also a compulsory non-credit-bearing unit in careers skills. Remaining credits are then built up from Economics or from other schools, with individual options carrying 10 CATS. In Part 3, students undertake a dissertation or project (15 CATS) and then choose from a list of Economics options, each rated at 15 CATS.

This more complex curriculum design (in terms of the credit architecture) offers flexibility in approach, but may be less transparent in the sense that students have to take units that carry different weightings and have different numbers of lectures and tutorials associated with them. The mixed pattern only works if the mix is repeated across schools, otherwise it becomes difficult for students to select units in other disciplines – if they wish to do this, of course.

Another feature worth noting is the inclusion in the design of non-credit-bearing units covering study and career skills. Introducing study skills to students can be crucial in helping them to make the transition into university study. Students arrive from school or college with expectations about modes of learning and forms of feedback that we cannot fulfil – and, in many cases, are inconsistent with them becoming independent and reflective learners. At a workshop at my university, an A-level teacher from a local college told us that she would never be allowed to talk in a lesson for more than 10 minutes at a time, nor would she ask her students to read more than a few pages at one sitting. Coming from that into an environment where students are expected to sit in lectures and then go off and read articles and chapters of books requires a major adjustment. The career skills unit highlights the importance of employability in a rapidly changing fee environment.

The question in curriculum design is whether to integrate such skills development into the formal curriculum and make it credit-bearing, or to follow the example of University C and require all students to take the units, but have them sitting alongside the curriculum. There is a tendency to see such skills development as being ‘unacademic’ in quality, and thus not worthy of carrying credit. On the other hand, if such units do not carry credit, do students have an incentive to take them seriously?

Case study 4: University D

University D has taken a very different view on what is appropriately embedded within the curriculum. The website notes that ‘there is no complicated modular structure, just lots of interesting opportunities’. However, the structure is effectively based on a 4-unit structure with some half units, as illustrated in Figure 6.

Figure 6: University D: a single honours economics programme

In Part 1, students take 30 credit units in micro, macro and QM, plus a 15 credit unit in Personal and Professional Development. For the final 15 credits, they choose between Banking and Finance in a Global Context or Introduction to Economic Institutions and Frameworks. In Part 2, the core is again contained in three 30-credit units in micro, macro and QM, and there is a 15 credit-rated unit in Professional Practice in International Business and Economics. The remaining 15 credits come from a selection of optional economics units. Part 3 is made up of a 30 credit unit in applied econometrics plus a 30 credit project, which may be theoretical or applied. Students then choose from a list of 30-credit options (the list also includes one 60-credit unit in the Economics of Regulation and Public Services).

The professional development units are a new development for University D, and are still under development at the time of writing. In Part 1, the unit is partly about study skills, but also helps to develop students’ personal, communication and career management skills, and to instil in them ‘a sense of personal motivation and commitment’. In Part 1, the unit also ‘incorporates appropriate management, organisational, sociological and psychological theories oriented towards the international business settings’.

By embedding such units within the design of the curriculum, University D is affirming the importance of personal development and employability as an integral part of a degree programme, and not just an optional add-on. The design of the curriculum nonetheless enables the programme outcomes required by the subject benchmark to be achieved. The large unit size does create a very clear structure for the programme, but may be seen as limiting the extent to which students are able to exercise choice in terms of options.

Case study 5: University E

University E follows a 6 unit per year structure with students being strongly encouraged to take a year out in year 3 either for a work placement or to spend a year abroad. Figure 7 illustrates the structure.

Figure 7: University E: a single honours economics programme

Other: Part 1: modules in Understanding Business & Financial Information, Developing Economic Thinking and Becoming a Practical Economist; in Part 3: a module in Economic Theory and Policy (including Managing Individual Change).

Part 1 offers no choices for students on this programme. Half of Part 1 is devoted to units in micro, macro and QM; other units have a strong vocational flavour, setting economics in perspective and highlighting the practical skills that economics provides, whilst also emphasising the importance of understanding business and financial information. These units begin to prepare students for possible work placements that they may take up as their third year of the programme. Part 2 provides more units in micro, macro and QM, plus a research methods unit which helps in preparation for the compulsory dissertation or applied project that comes in Part 3. In Part 2, students also choose one specialist economics unit in each semester. Part 3 creates more flexibility to select specialist economics units.

Again, the placement year, whilst not compulsory, provides a strong employability focus to the degree programme which may be attractive to students who wish to pursue a career as an economist. The school provides a placement team to support students in finding an appropriate placement and in monitoring progress during the placement year. Students are required to complete a portfolio whilst working to provide evidence for employers of the work experience gained. Those who choose not to undertake the placement are encouraged to gain work experience through internships, paid work or through volunteering.

Case study 6: University F (Scottish)

Under the Scottish system, degree programmes are four years long, with students following a wide range of units in years 1 and 2 before embarking on two years of honours study.

Figure 8: University F: a single honours economics programme (Scotland)

You can see from Figure 8 that the economics content of the first two years is relatively small, and that QM makes no appearance until year 3. Students are thus exposed to a broader educational experience in the early years of their degree – indeed, they can transfer between discipline areas at a late stage, so long as they have studied the key units in the first two years. University F offers a series of units in the first two years which are termed as ‘Enhanced Study’ units, encouraging students to broaden their horizons or take up a language.

A four-year integrated Master’s programme

A possibility that has not been extensively pursued in England and Wales so far has been the four-year undergraduate master’s programme in economics. Such programmes are common in some disciplines – notably in engineering and some science programmes. The idea is that students follow a four-year undergraduate programme, ending up with the degree of M.Eng., M.Math., M.Chem. etc.

An example in economics is the M.Econ. programme on offer at the University of Southampton. Students follow the first three years of the B.Sc. single honours economics programme, and can exit with a B.Sc. at the end of year 3. However, they can continue into year 4, in which they study core units from the full M.Sc. in Economics (or the M.Sc. in Economics and Econometrics), together with some options and an advanced research project. They can then graduate in the June of their fourth year with an M.Econ. 

From the student perspective, there are some clear advantages. They graduate earlier than if they do the full M.Sc. (because they do not have to submit a dissertation in the September). They have access to student loans for the full four years of study, whereas they would get no loans for the full M.Sc. From the staff perspective, there is no additional teaching, as the M.Econ. students are co-taught with the other M.Sc. students. In the new fee regime, such programmes could become more popular because of the access to student loans.

There are some disadvantages, of course. The notion of the four-year integrated undergraduate masters is less familiar to employers than it is in engineering and science. The level 7 year (Part 4) contains fewer credits than the full-blown master’s, which raises issues of Bologna-compatibility.

Case study summary

The case studies have shown a variety of alternative approaches to curriculum design. All programmes allow students to achieve the subject benchmarks for an honours degree in economics, but with variety in a number of dimensions.

The credit architecture varies between institutions (and sometimes within institutions, which can cause issues). Most operate a credit system based on multiples of 15 or 20 credit units (CATS), but some have a mixture. In general, the larger the unit size, the less flexible is curriculum design. Smaller units offer more flexibility and choice for students, but this may have implications for the assessment load. However, when designing a curriculum, it is likely that the institution will dictate the size of the basic building block.

All the models of curriculum design presented offer a balance between the three pillars of an economics programme – micro, macro and quantitative methods – and in most cases a balance is maintained in the core units. However, students then have some flexibility to vary the mix in the remaining part of the curriculum by their choice of options. Option lists naturally vary according to the interests and research strengths of staff, and the extent to which students are able to choose units from outside economics varies between programmes.

There is also a spectrum of ways in which study and careers skills are embedded into the curriculum or sit alongside it, and in the opportunities that students have for undertaking work placements or study abroad. In practice, many programmes offer students the opportunity of study abroad, but few take it up. Work placements may become more attractive to students in the new fee regime, if students come to see employability as a key factor in their choice of programme.

Top tips when embarking on curriculum design

  • Be aware of the credit architecture;
  • choose a balance between core and optional units, remembering that the core needs to meet the subject benchmarks;
  • maintain an appropriate balance between micro, macro and QM, appropriate for the characteristics of students entering the programme;
  • consider whether study and career skills should be credit-bearing within the curriculum or outside the formal structure.