Postgraduate programmes are much more responsive to prevailing market conditions than their undergraduate siblings, since there are no HEFCE funded places and students are more proactive and informed when choosing their postgraduate institution from their prior experiences of studying within the higher education environment. With fees likely to rise in future years, it is vitally important that when developing the academic programme that students’ expectations are placed at the very centre. Whereas undergraduate degrees are fairly prescriptive in their requirements of key skills and programme learning outcomes for economics degrees, postgraduate programmes offer a wider field for flexibility and thus are more specialist in nature. This flexibility should be used to tailor the master’s degree programme to suit the current student market demands in order to attract a viable number of students for the postgraduate programme. All too often, academics want to teach a subject specialism, believing we know what students should be taught. However, with greater transparency and understanding of master’s degree programmes, and students’ treating their education as an investment, ignoring students’ desires will only lead to falling student numbers.

When devising the curriculum it is no longer a case of deciding which modules should be provided in delivering each specific degree stream. Rather, you also need to consider the holistic situation in relation to how students are supported in their learning, from the traditional taught content provision, to thinking about the most appropriate teaching strategies to employ for each specific topic to promote enhanced learning. Finally, developing and facilitating engagement activities to encourage student engagement in their subject and to ultimately equip them with the skills needed for their careers post studies need to be considered. Thus developing the educational programme is now about the ‘whole package’ when designing a course that will be attractive to students.

When developing a new degree stream, it is logical to begin with the aims and objectives of the course. To tease out these details it is pertinent to write a programme specification, outlining the knowledge, skills, understanding and further attributes a student is expected to have acquired upon completion of their studies. The academic side provides details on the proposed teaching, module provision, learning methods, assessment and how the programme relates to the QAA’s qualifications framework. This document needs to establish the necessary links between these attributes and, importantly, institutional objectives, through providing the rationale for the entire course, systematically demonstrating that there is a gap in the current market, for both students and employers, and that the programme fits within the strategic direction of the department’s faculty and the overall objectives of the institution. There needs to be a clear distinct statement about how the proposed course differentiates from other universities’ offerings, whether it will have a significant material effect upon courses which are already provided and the likely numbers of students that it is expected to attract.

Since universities are facing significant funding cuts, there has been an added emphasis on examining departments’ financial health and evaluating programmes independently for their commercial viability. Hence in these increasingly business-orientated times each programme or additional degree stream must conclusively demonstrate its commercial potential and the number of students which must be attracted to reach ‘break even’. This business case is typically handled by the faculty’s/school’s finance director to give some independence from the academic members who hold vested interests in ensuring the programme is approved. When this hurdle is overcome it is still important to reduce the risk of financial liabilities should the programme fail to attract enough students to make the course viable, so it is important to include an opportunity to cancel the programme if this situation arises.

The programme specification acts to focus minds by bringing together all the various elements in one document which will face various levels of scrutiny internally and will need to pass through the peer justification process within the institution to establish the programme formally. The content usually included in this document covers the following points:

  • academic aims of the programme
  • programme structure
  • learning outcomes, transferable and key skills
  • teaching strategies
  • evaluation and quality assurance
  • admission requisites.

Traditionally, there are a number of ways you can set out the programme specification. The top-down approach involves setting the high-level aims and objectives, identifying the gap within the marketplace, establishing the modules needed, devising the material and which faculty members specialities are required, the appropriate learning strategies and further activities which could enhance students’ consolidation of the material. Alternatively, the opposite approach can be employed, or sometimes a mixture is pursued. However, when establishing the programme, the advantage of the top-down approach is that thoughtful planning can lead to a maximisation of the potential economies of scale which exist within the academic environment.

Figure 3 The dynamic state of curriculum development

Furthermore, bringing all these elements together for the programme specification should not be a one-off static process. The process of curriculum development needs to be responsive to students’ current market demands, and through including current students’ evaluation of their learning experiences within this model as well as market demand change dictated through the aims and objectives. Thus this process should be on-going to ensure the programme is constantly relevant, leading to changes within stated objectives and/or content and teaching strategies employed, as depicted in Figure 3.