The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

The growth of postgraduate provision has been one of the most significant developments across UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) with a 14 per cent increase in postgraduate research (PGR) and a 46 per cent increase in postgraduate taught (PGT) degrees between 2002–03 and 2008–09, whilst over half of the latter are now being taken on a part-time basis. This significant increase in the number of postgraduate degrees offered, in particular taught Master’s, has been a financial lifeline for many universities constrained by funding council caps on undergraduate numbers and latterly fees, whilst offering further academic credibility to the department. Thus although the importance of instigating new PGT programmes can be seen from a variety of directions, the design of ab initio postgraduate degrees has consequently become more potentially problematic given an ever-crowded marketplace. This chapter therefore seeks to explore some of the challenges of introducing new PGT degrees.

Section 2 argues that rather than solely basing their development on the inherent interests and expertise of staff within the department, it is vital to consider what subject areas are being sought by students. This might necessitate a shift in thinking to become receptive to market demand, together with embracing a level of flexibility as tastes change, to either adapt established PGT programmes or discontinue and replace them with new offerings. This then raises the issue of how to ascertain market conditions regarding the preferences of potential postgraduates, information concerning potential competition in the form of other similar degree programmes, together with input from external stakeholders.

Given that exhaustive market research is unlikely to be available to many departments/universities, it is suggested that utilising your own student cohort should provide sufficient diversity to approximate to potential PGT applicants. Hence, Section 3 examines the use of focus groups in offering an appropriate interaction between the department and its students to discuss ideas relating to the instigation of ab initio postgraduate degrees. These groups potentially provide students with the freedom to discuss ideas important to them, rather than to the department.

This is extended in Section 4, as although focus groups can be effective, it is usually appropriate to undertake additional forms of information gathering such as via a questionnaire, again directed at your own prospective postgraduate students. This could include considering the following factors: student background, their interest in undertaking and subject theme of a proposed PGT, attitudes and drivers as to where students wish to undertake a PGT programme, what information is important in their decision-making process, together with examining the level of fees that students would be willing to pay.

The following two sections then address the need to review the potential competition of existing, taught, postgraduate provision. Section 5 examines this from an internal perspective whereby it becomes essential to conduct a critical analysis of provision to determine whether the PGT programme still fulfils the original criteria and if these expectations are still relevant given likely future market conditions. From the point of view of prospective postgraduates, most institutions will be compared on a wide-range of criteria; the focus therefore should be upon identifying/developing a competitive advantage within the provision/course that differentiates the department within the marketplace.

Section 6 discusses the implications of an ever-shifting external postgraduate environment, whereby it is crucial to ensure that the provision provided remains competitive. Simultaneously, it is necessary both to identify and build upon an existing competitive advantage. Consequently, once an ab initio PGT programme has been successfully designed and established, departments should conduct a periodic strategic review relating to issues such as current provision in relation to programmes aims, present and likely future demand, together with the identification of competitor PGT programmes.

Following the market research phase, Sections 7 and 8 then discuss issues relating to curriculum development. Section 7 notes that the trend for postgraduate Master’s degree streams is to be increasingly specialist/subject specific with numerous circumstances that require valid consideration when developing an effective PGT programme. However, curriculum design need not become a complex process, especially if the programme is structured in a logical way. These ideas are extend in Section 8 to give additional possibilities by exploiting the strengths of such a framework. For example, there may be the opportunity to open up the degree programme, particularly through an international degree stream or to a wider audience through the provision of a pre-Master’s diploma.