The Economics Network

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5. Designing a Programme

Launching a new programme is a complex process that entails extensive planning and administrative hassle. However, in a rapidly changing economic and political environment, it is crucial to refresh the range of degree programmes offered to students. This may involve revamping existing provision, or it may mean introducing wholly new programmes, perhaps reflecting the changing research and teaching interests of staff in the Department as well as the changing needs of students.

5.1 Market research

As with designing a new module, a first step is to reflect on why the new programme is needed, and for whom it is intended. Is there a demand for the new offering? Or is it just something that appeals to you and/or your Department? There is no point in devising a wonderful new programme that will be enjoyable to teach if no students will want to follow it.

Market research will need to focus on potential student demand and on competitor analysis. As far as student demand is concerned, your admission office may have the resources to do some of this work for you, or you may have to rely on asking questions when applicants come to visit. This is unreliable, of course. For example, if you ask applicants whether they are interested in study abroad, and you may well be faced with great enthusiasm – but once they are on course, persuading them to take advantage of these opportunities becomes a challenge.

Competitor analysis is also important. Are you entering a crowded market, or have you found a new niche programme? Watching what other institutions are doing in terms of curriculum development may provide ideas, but also warn of the potential intensity of competition in some areas. External examiners on your existing programmes and colleagues can act as a useful sounding board as you explore the potential viability of your new programme. You will no doubt need to make a case for viability as part of the approval process.

Top Tip

The Economics Network website provides links to economics departments in the UK.

5.2 Making the case for the new programme

Having convinced yourself of the desirability of the new programme, how do you convince your colleagues and administrators that it is a good (and viable) idea?

In addition to the market research, you need to be able to show how the new programme will enhance the Department’s portfolio of programmes, and how it will fit in with existing provision. What is the underlying purpose for the programme? What will be the overall learning outcomes? How does this complement what is already being offered?

An important issue for both your colleagues and for the institution’s administration is naturally the resourcing of the programme. What will it cost in terms of staffing? Will it be able to draw upon existing modules, or will it necessitate the development of lots of new ones? Will it be attractive to international as well as UK students?

You will need to convince your colleagues that the new programme will fit with existing provision. Make sure that there is coordination across programmes in relation to things like entry requirements. If you are intending to make use of some existing modules, check capacity constraints and prerequisite structures.

How will the admissions process be handled? Will the new programme be advertised alongside existing programmes? How will you announce the availability of the new programme? Will recruitment to the programme complement the existing programme or draw recruitment away from existing offerings?

You may need to coordinate the assessment structures and the range of assessment methods to be used across the programme, to ensure a good balance of exams and other forms of assessment.

Will the current external examiners be able to take on responsibility for the new programme, or will there need to be new appointments?

Top Tip

Talk to colleagues throughout the process: get them involved and on board.

In designing a new programme, you will face a variety of constraints that will influence the way in which the programme can be built. These come from your Department and/or Faculty and from the need to comply with the approval procedures of the university, which will in turn reflect the demands of the QAA.

Your institutional programme approval processes will ensure compliance with the requirements of external bodies, but it helps to be aware of how these are likely to affect the way in which you build your programme. External regulatory bodies include the QAA and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), but also may involve accreditation agencies if your planned programme is intended to offer exemptions from professional exams, such as are needed for accountants or actuaries etc.

5.3 The requirements of the QAA

The first essential thing to be addressed in designing a curriculum is to ensure compliance with the requirements of the QAA, which is the regulatory body charged with the responsibility of upholding quality and standards in universities and colleges. QAA does this through its Quality Code, which ‘gives all higher education providers a shared starting point for setting, describing and assuring the academic standards of their higher education awards and programmes and the quality of the learning opportunities they provide’.[note 1] For programme design, the most important parts of the Quality Code relate to the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ), subject benchmark statements, programme specifications and programme approval. Many, if not all, of the steps needed to ensure compliance will be imposed on disciplines through the medium of institutional procedures.

5.3.1 The Framework for Higher Education (FHEQ)

The FHEQ sets the general framework for degree programmes, and the QAA is clear that it ‘should be regarded as a framework, not a straitjacket’.[note 2] At the heart of the FHEQ is an attempt to ensure that qualifications awarded by Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) maintain consistent standards, with a common expectation about student achievements. It is important to note that the ‘fundamental premise of the FHEQ is that qualifications should be awarded on the basis of achievement of outcomes and attainment rather than years of study’.[note 3] This underpins the approach to be taken in designing a curriculum and in preparing the associated documentation. There is a wealth of detail in the QAA documentation, so I will focus on a few key issues that need to be built into curriculum design.

First, it is worth noting that the FHEQ does not constitute a credit framework. Many UK universities do operate on a credit framework, but this is not mandatory under the QAA rules. However, QAA does provide guidance on academic credit arrangements. If your institution does use a credit framework (and most do so), your programme will need to recognise that in the way it is put together. In practical terms, this determines the size and number of modules that will comprise your programme. What this means in practice is that you will not have freedom to make up your own modular structure, but work with your institution’s standard set-up in terms of the number and size of modules.

Top Tip

At the outset, make sure that you know the modular structure that is used in your institution. This may involve CATS or ECTS credits being allocated to each module.[note 4]

Under a credit system, each module takes on a credit value. This reflects the hours of study expected of a typical student following the module, these hours being divided between formal contact time and independent study hours. For example, a module rated at 20 CATS points would involve a total of 200 study hours. A year of study must sum to 120 CATS. Under the Bologna process, the learning outcomes (and associated workload) of a typical full-time year of academic formal learning represent 60 ECTS. In other words, 1 ECTS is approximately equal to 2 CATS.

Where this becomes important for curriculum design is in specifying the overall requirements for an honours degree or any of the intermediate exit points that are available on most programmes. Table 1 summarises the credit values normally associated with each part of an undergraduate programme in England.

Table 1: Credit values and curriculum design



HE qualification as in FHEQ


FHEQ level

Minimum credits (CATS)

Minimum credits at the level of the qualification



Cert HE






Dip HE





approx 120

Bachelor’s degree with honours






Integrated Master’s degree






A normal interpretation of this is that to be awarded an honours degree, a student must have accumulated 120 CATS (60 ECTS) per part, with at least 90 CATS (45 ECTS) at each FHEQ level. Institutions will no doubt have their own rules and regulations for implementing the framework, so you may have no real choice in choosing the overall credit structure. Nonetheless, it is worth being aware of the structure, as it underpins curriculum design.

An important aspect of this is that there must be progression in what is expected of students at each successive level.

5.3.2 Subject benchmarks

When designing a curriculum, a fundamental requirement is to ensure that the contents are consistent with the relevant subject benchmarks. The economics benchmark statements, which were amended in 2019, can be found at .

If you study the benchmarks, you will find that they are not actually very constraining, in the sense that they summarise in a common-sense way the components that most economists would agree should lie at the heart of any economics curriculum. In other words, the benchmarks specify a range of features that we would look for in any economics degree programme. The details are not provided here, as this would be repetition of the benchmarks themselves. Suffice it to note that they encompass the aims of degree programmes in economics, and specify the subject knowledge and the subject-specific and other skills that students are expected to accrue during their studies. The economist’s way of thinking and the importance of the transferable application of economic concepts are also emphasised. In other words, the benchmarks set out the attributes that students successfully completing a degree programme would be expected to have gained.

Top Tip

Notice that the way in which the benchmark is set out is helpful when setting out to draft the programme specification, which is another essential part of developing a new curriculum.

5.3.3 The programme specification

Part A of the QAA’s Quality Code[note 5] requires all HEIs to ‘maintain a definitive record of each programme and qualification’, to be shared with staff and students. This is the reference point for the delivery of the programme, and will be a key part of the documentation that you will need to submit as part of the approval process.

The most common form that this definitive record takes is the programme specification (or equivalent). Make sure that you obtain a copy of your institution’s template for this early on in your planning.

Programme specifications (or equivalent) are normally built around the learning outcomes. This is potentially helpful, and can be seen as a foil to the common media obsession with contact hours. The outcome-based approach focuses on what a student can have achieved successfully completing a programme of study, rather than how study hours are divided between direct contact with academic staff and independent study time and other forms of learning.

Top Tips

If you want to look at some examples of programme specifications, you may find them as part of the Key Information Sets (KIS) that all HEIs are required to supply. These are found on the Unistats website at DiscoverUni . If you select a programme, find the heading ‘Information on the Uni website’, then click on ‘How the course is taught’. You may then find the programme specification, although not all institutions provide the information in this form.

As outlined in the discussion of module design, individual modules are also expected to have their own learning outcomes associated with them, and the programme specification then shows how those modules can be combined into a coherent programme.

Notice that having a programme specification (or its equivalent) is not optional, as it is one of the key documents that will be audited as part of the QAA Higher Education Review. Programmes will be judged by whether they deliver on the claims that are embedded in the specifications.

5.4 Programme approval

Chapter B1 of the QAA Quality Code contains guidance about programme approval.[note 6] Your institution’s formal approval procedures will ensure that your programme complies with this guidance, so make sure that you follow this carefully. The process will no doubt include an element of external scrutiny, so think about who you might consult.

Top Tip

When looking for an external scrutineer, you could do worse than start with the list of Associates of the Economics Network. Notice that you cannot use present external examiners for this role.

Be aware of the timescale over which the approval process will be spread. A new programme is likely to go through several stages of scrutiny and consultation. For example, you might draw attention to your plans at the start of an academic year, with the hope of being ready for the following year — but in practice, it might take longer than this.

There will need to be preliminary discussions with interested parties (including your colleagues). There will then need to be discussion by the executive to see whether your proposal fits with the strategic aims of the Department, Faculty or School and the University. Documents then need to be drafted, and an external expert appointed. Other Departments and professional services may need to provide their input, and there needs to be rigorous academic scrutiny. Only once validated will you be able to start advertising and recruiting.

There are some other time constraints to consider. For a new undergraduate programme, there must be a Key Information Set. This needs to be ready fourteen months before the start of a programme, as it needs to be published a year before the programme starts. For at least one university with which I am familiar, the deadline for including an undergraduate programme in the printed prospectus comes 20 months before students enter the programme.

Top Tip

Make sure you do not miss key deadlines set by your institution. Missing key deadlines can delay the launch of the new programme, possibly by a whole year.

A similar schedule applies for major changes to existing programmes. The decision on when to launch would also depend upon being able to advertise and recruit. Ultimately, this may be the deciding factor in choosing how quickly to launch. Timescales are likely to vary from institution to institution.

5.5 Building the programme

In building the core of the curriculum, balance needs to be achieved across a range of dimensions. There needs to be a balance between theory and applied material, and between micro and macro. Decisions also need to be taken about the place of mathematics and statistics in the curriculum, being aware that the subject benchmarks indicate that a variety of approaches can be adopted. For example, it is recognised that some degrees that are not single honours economics programmes may not cover all of the core elements, and that ‘the forms of analysis chosen may differ and may be tailored to best serve the skills that students bring with them into their degree programme’.[note 7] Choices here may therefore depend upon the characteristics of the student intake – or perhaps the curriculum will dictate the sort of students to be recruited.

Questions of balance also arise where a single honours curriculum may co-exist with a series of joint honours programmes or a major/minor approach. The core modules on a programme need to be designed in such a way that the programme outcomes set out in the programme specification can be met by all students who complete the programme successfully. However, students value choice in their curriculum, and if the outcomes can be met in a subset of the modules that make up the programme, then this can create flexibility for students to exercise some choice of what to study. This may take the form of choosing amongst a range of optional economics modules, or it may be that students can choose other modules (e.g. languages) from outside their core discipline. This may be one way of enabling students to enhance their employability.

The design of the core curriculum may also need to take into account the possibility that some students may wish to spend part of their degree programme studying abroad. Many programmes are designed to enable either a whole year study abroad, or a single semester.

5.5.1  Curriculum and audience

There are many economics programmes being taught across the UK, catering for a wide variety of different audiences. There are highly technical programmes with a heavy bias towards theory and a high level of mathematical content. There are other programmes that have a more applied focus, perhaps with a stronger, practical, employability focus. The curriculum has to be designed for its intended audience and to deliver the intended programme outcomes. This has implications for the entry requirements and for the balance of content across the curriculum. For example, requiring an A-level in Mathematics provides a signal about curriculum content.

It is also important to be aware that many students may not fully anticipate the mathematical nature of some programmes, only discovering well into the first term that they are not well suited to the approach being adopted. This seems to happen regardless of the information that we provide before they arrive, and may reflect the content and style of the A-level Economics specifications. For students that do find that their talents and abilities are more suited to a less technical approach, curriculum design may need to be framed in such a way as to provide an ‘escape route’. This may be especially important where the admissions criteria do not require students to have studied economics before embarking on the programme.

5.5.2 Content, sequence, balance and engagement

In setting out to design (or to redesign) a curriculum, it is perhaps inevitable that much of the focus will be on what to include and in what order – as well as how to structure and organise the material. However, it is also important to be aware of the need to engage our students with their learning, and to design the curriculum to transmit the excitement of the subject. If we do not engage our students with the subject we will have failed.

Engagement comes partly through the way in which we deliver material, but curriculum design is also important. One way of capturing our students’ attention through curriculum design is by using the ‘Threshold Concepts’ approach as outlined in the chapter in the Handbook for Economics Lecturers by Peter Davies and Jean Mangan.[note 8] These concepts offer a focus on key ideas that can begin to introduce students to the way that economists think. For many students, it is also important to highlight applications of economic theory in the early weeks, balanced against the need to demonstrate the importance of learning and polishing quantitative skills. It is also crucial to remember that our students come from diverse backgrounds and have diverse preferences. There will be those who relish the mathematical approach and are keen to engage with theory. We need to cater for them as well.

The financial crisis of the late 2000s launched widespread debate about the way in which we teach economics. You can read about this on the Economics Network website.[note 9] An important offshoot of this debate has been the development of the CORE project.[note 10] This project has produced an ‘open-access, interactive ebook-based course for anyone interested in learning about the economy and economics’. When planning to design a new programme in economics, you should check out this material, which offers a novel approach to introducing students to economics, to see whether this approach would work well with your intended students.

Top Tip

If you do decide to use this approach, be aware that there will be an impact on how you design the curriculum beyond the first year of the programme.

5.5.3 Study abroad?

A further element influencing curriculum design concerns the opportunity for students to spend a period undertaking study abroad. Such opportunities can either be embedded within the curriculum or can take the form of a year out during the programme. Experience suggests that universities have been more keen to provide such opportunities for their students than students have been to take advantage of them. This is evidenced by the nation-wide tendency for UK universities to be net importers of exchange students, with many more European students coming for a year or semester in the UK than British students travelling abroad. It remains to be seen whether (or how) this will be affected by Brexit.

The language issue looms large here. In general, the language skills of British students are inferior to those of students from elsewhere. However, British students have also been reluctant to study abroad even when the language of instruction is English.

As far as curriculum design is concerned, the key issue is whether the credits earned by the student abroad are to contribute to the home institution’s award or not. A student taking a term or semester abroad will need to have the credits recognised as part of the degree programme. This means that the institution will want to have quality assurance checks in place to ensure that the material studied abroad is at the appropriate level and that the foreign institution is of a recognised status. It will also be necessary to ensure that any programme outcomes that would have been achieved had the student remained in the home institution are adequately covered by the study abroad. For example, if the student would have taken a core micro or macro module, do the modules studied abroad align with the pertinent learning outcomes? This will require careful scrutiny of the module outlines to ensure that they cover similar material. A whole year abroad may pose fewer problems, if it can be regarded as an intermission in study, such that the credits do not have to be transferred and recognised locally.

For study that is embedded in the curriculum, the language issue must be considered – at least where the opportunities to study abroad involve study in a foreign language. Indeed, even if teaching is available in English at a university in Europe or elsewhere, the language for everyday living is still a potential issue. In order for the option to study abroad to be a serious offer, students need to have the opportunity to learn or improve their language competency. This should preferably be available within the curriculum and not just as an evening extra. This clearly has implications for curriculum design.

It is widely believed that studying abroad is a way of enhancing the student experience and improving employability, and to be able to offer students the opportunity when they visit on open or visit days seems to increase the attractiveness of programmes.  However, persuading students to take up the opportunities seems to be the greatest challenge, perhaps because once students are caught up with their programmes, the risks of taking time out to study abroad loom large.




[3] Ibid.

[4] CATS relates to the Credit Accumulation and Transfer System, whilst ECTS relates to the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System, used across Europe.

[5] (it’s a bit hidden, see Expectation A2.2 on page 21)


[7] para 4.2


[9] See

[10] See