The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

2. Definitions and assumptions

The focus of this chapter is on the undergraduate curriculum. The issues that arise in designing a degree programme for postgraduate students are rather different, given the specialist or vocational focus of such programmes and their shorter duration.

Curriculum design in the context of an undergraduate programme refers to the way in which material is organised within the programme. There are many dimensions to this, including the balance between micro, macro and econometric topics; the balance between theory and applied material; the need to ensure progression through the typical three-year programme; and so on. These aspects of design will be considered as the chapter unfolds.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the typical undergraduate programme runs over three years – or four years for a sandwich course. In some disciplines (notably Engineering), it is common to have a four-year integrated undergraduate Masters’ degree. There are advantages and disadvantages in this approach, and the possibility of adopting such a programme in Economics will be discussed in section 6. Universities in Scotland operate four-year degree programmes, reflecting the different nature of pre-university education. This offers different challenges and opportunities for curriculum design, which will be explored in a case study.

Nomenclature relating to the components of a degree can vary between institutions. In this chapter, the following definitions will be used. A degree programme (or just programme) refers to the entirety of the study undertaken by a student, normally over a three-year period. Programmes are sometimes known as courses, but this chapter will refer to programmes.

The QAA provides the regulatory framework for degree programmes in the UK, and specifies the criteria to be met by any degree programme. The QAA covers Scotland through a similar but separate process. Section 4 explores the way in which the QAA influences discipline-based curriculum design through its general framework and its subject benchmarks.

A programme can be seen to be divided into a number of parts. A part is taken to be the material studied during a year of full-time study. For example, Part 1 will be taken to refer to the material normally covered in the first year of full-time study. This is used instead of referring to ‘years’ to avoid potential confusion caused in relation to part-time or sandwich programmes.

Each part is in turn made up of a number of units or modules. These are also sometimes known as courses. These are the building blocks of the curriculum, and will be termed as units for the remainder of this chapter. The number of units that make up a part varies between institutions. A scan of websites of economics departments shows that the most common pattern is based on 4 or 8 units per year (23 programmes) or on 6 or 12 units per year (14 programmes). One programme uses a pattern based on 10 units per year, and three others offer a mixture of units of differing sizes. There were more than 10 other institutions that do not make public the structure on which they operate. In many cases, the pattern of curriculum design in terms of the number of modules is dictated by institutions, especially where there are joint degrees that cross schools or faculties. There is no unique ‘best answer’ to what is the optimum unit size, but we are used to this in economics. This is discussed further in section 5.2.