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2. Definitions and assumptions

The focus of this chapter is on the undergraduate curriculum, and its component modules. 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.

For discussion of designing postgraduate programmes, see the Handbook chapter ‘Designing ab initio postgraduate degrees’ by Mark Baimbridge (2013).

Nomenclature relating to the components of a degree can vary between institutions, so let’s be clear about the definitions that will be used in this chapter

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.

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 modules for the remainder of this chapter. 

The design of a module needs to reflect the overall structure of the programme to which it contributes, and this will be an important factor to consider when producing or amending a module.

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 will be considered in Section 5.

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. 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.

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 5 explores the way in which the QAA influences discipline-based curriculum design through its general framework and its subject benchmarks.