2. The UK experience
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As background to this chapter, a brief email survey was undertaken to gather information about the role of the undergraduate dissertation in economics departments across the UK. A report on this survey may be found in the Appendices.
From the survey it seems that dissertations are a part of the majority of Economics programmes in the UK. However, there are significant differences in the way in which the dissertation module is organised, and the way that students experience the dissertation.
A particular issue is whether all students should be required to complete a dissertation as part of their undergraduate programme. In some institutions, the dissertation is indeed compulsory for everyone, but elsewhere it is restricted to single honours students, or to those students who obtain an average of 60% or more in their second year. The QAA’s descriptor quoted above suggests that all students should receive some exposure to research, but clearly joint honours students are likely to find this more challenging than the specialists, having acquired less in-depth familiarity with either of their chosen disciplines.
Where joint honours students are required to take the dissertation, it may be necessary to adjust the expectations in terms of content. For example, whilst a single honours student with some exposure to econometrics may be expected to undertake some empirical work, it would be unreasonable to expect a joint honours (e.g. Politics and Economics) student to have the same familiarity with econometric methods.
Whether the dissertation should be limited to the better students is a moot point. On the one hand, it could be argued that weaker students should have equal access to the dissertation option; it may even be that there are some students who may achieve a better result on the dissertation where they can immerse themselves in a topic and produce a polished piece of work, than they could produce under examination conditions or in a problem-set-oriented assessment. On the other hand, experience suggests that weaker students require more supervision, and are more likely to resort to practices that breach academic integrity guidelines.
For these reasons, it may be necessary (or desirable) to provide alternative ways of exposing joint honours and weaker students to research methods. This will be discussed later in section 4.
Where the dissertation is compulsory for all students, the organisation of the module causes concern. When there are more than a hundred students requiring supervision, the load on individual staff members becomes heavy – especially given that some topic areas (and some staff members) tend to be more popular with students than others. It may then be necessary to find some way of spreading the supervision load across available staff or accommodating differences through a workload management system. Spreading the load evenly may result in inconsistency in the supervision provided, which can be very difficult to monitor effectively.
Another major impact on the dissertation has been the rise of the worldwide web, and the ease with which students are able to find material. This can lead to excessive reliance on sites such as Wikipedia, and makes it imperative to be able to monitor standards of academic integrity. Almost all of the survey respondents reported using TurnitinUK, whether as routine for all dissertations submitted, for a random sample or for suspect cases. The traditional remedy of holding vivas for all student dissertations becomes extremely costly when large numbers of students are involved (one institution reported that more than 500 dissertations are submitted in a typical year). Nonetheless, this practice appears to have survived in some economics departments.