The Economics Network

Improving economics teaching and learning for over 20 years

6. Meeting the demands of your institution

As well as ensuring that your new programme complies with regulatory demands, your institution may well impose other restrictions on the content and delivery of programmes, and you should find out about these as soon as you can. I will just mention a few common things that you may come across.

6.1 Graduate attributes

The issue of how to embed employability into the curriculum is by no means a recent phenomenon, and has become a key part of the mission of many universities. Much of the discussion centred around notions of what is meant by ‘graduateness’ – i.e. what are the characteristics that we look for in a graduate. Following much debate in Australia in the 1990s, this has developed into a debate about ‘graduate attributes’.

The term ‘graduate attributes’ can be defined as the ‘qualities, skills and understandings that a university community agrees its students should develop during their time with the institution and consequently shape the contribution they are able to make to their profession and society’.

A Google search on the phrase ‘graduate attributes’ shows that many universities in the UK and elsewhere have been devoting enormous attention to the identification of these graduate attributes. A sample list of attributes would be:

  • academic attributes
  • communication skills
  • research and inquiry
  • the ability to be a reflective learner
  • global citizenship
  • ethical leadership.

When designing a curriculum, you should check whether your institution has a graduate attributes framework, as you may be expected to ensure that students have opportunities to develop these attributes within the curriculum, although it may be that some of them will be more readily developed in the co-curriculum. Examples of attributes that can be developed within the curriculum include ensuring that students have opportunities for group work, for giving presentations and for learning about and practising research methods.

Equally important as providing students with opportunities to acquire these attributes is making sure that they are aware that they are acquiring them. Employers have commented that students in interview are often unaware of the skills and attributes that they have been building up during their studies.

Top tip

Check whether your institution defines a set of graduate attributes and whether students need to be given opportunities to acquire these as part of the curriculum.

6.2 Research-led teaching

The relationship between research and teaching has always been contentious, if only because of the tension that exists between competing demands on the time and energy of academic staff. This applies especially strongly in institutions where promotion (and appointment) depend more upon research excellence and publications than upon the ability to deliver learning and teaching effectively. It has been argued that students at a university, whether at undergraduate or postgraduate level, should be exposed to the research that is such a central part of a university’s mission. The undergraduate curriculum is thus expected to deliver ‘research-led teaching’.

Although there may be a widespread agreement that there should be research-led teaching, there is much less consensus on what this actually means, and it has been interpreted in different ways in different contexts. Broadly, we can identify four different approaches.

At one level, there are many university websites that include statements such as ‘you will be taught by experts who are at the cutting edge of their disciplines’. This is one interpretation of research-led teaching. Students will be taught by researchers with a proven track record of excellence. The efficacy of this approach may vary. The mere fact of being taught by an active researcher in itself does not guarantee that the research will rub off on the students. A lecturer may spice up the lectures with anecdotes about research or present some of the results in an accessible way – or simply insist that students read his/her papers. However, the scope for this when teaching introductory mathematics or consumer demand may be limited.

The curriculum must thus present opportunities for researchers to inject research into their teaching. A common way of doing this is through the menu of options provided for students, so that researchers have the opportunity to present units that are closely related to their own area of expertise. It has to be admitted, however, that this form of research-led teaching, valuable as it is, is rather passive from the students’ viewpoint.

A second level of research-led teaching is to ensure that the curriculum delivers the skills needed for students to engage in research. A unit in research methods might fit the bill here, and this could be fully or partly assessed by having students prepare a research proposal on a topic of their choice.

A third level would be to require students to engage in a research project or dissertation. This is indeed a common feature of many economics degree programmes. Students can find this one of the most rewarding parts of their programme.

Another rather different interpretation of research-led teaching is that teaching should be informed by pedagogic research. This goes beyond the scope of this chapter, as it is not a curriculum design issue as such. This is perhaps more to do with staff development and the need to expose academic staff to the results of pedagogic research.

6.3 Looking beyond the discipline

For students who proceed from undergraduate studies in economics to take a Master’s degree and then follow this up by researching a Ph.D., an undergraduate programme that focuses on economics alone may provide a good preparation. Perhaps for those who exit after the Master’s and become professional economists, an intense focus may also work well. However, for students who enter other careers, such a concentration may produce tunnel vision. Indeed, it could be argued that even for the professional economist or Ph.D., some exposure to the world beyond economics may produce a more rounded and balanced individual. The increasing move towards interdisciplinary research gives further impetus to the desirability of allowing students to look beyond their discipline, and explore the big issues of our day through different disciplinary lenses.

A curriculum can readily be designed to permit this flexibility, given earlier arguments about the ability to achieve the outcomes associated with the subject benchmarks in a subset of the modules that make up a programme.

One approach is through the development of joint honours programmes that expose students to two related disciplines. One disadvantage of this approach is that students may achieve the benchmark levels of knowledge and understanding in each of their two disciplines, but may not have acquired the depth needed to pursue postgraduate work in either of them.

A number of universities are beginning to think more imaginatively about how to broaden the horizons of their students by creating opportunities to be exposed to different ways of thinking about the big issues of our day.

One example is the LSE100 initiative, which is compulsory for all undergraduates at the LSE from 2010-11 onwards. The following extract from the LSE100 guidebook summarises what is on offer:

‘Whatever your degree course, LSE100 is designed to enhance your experience at the [LSE] by enabling you to complement your disciplinary training with an understanding of different ways of thinking; to learn from debating and collaborating with students from other disciplines and cultural backgrounds; and to strengthen your research and communication skills.’[note 1]

The LSE100 course covers a wide range of topics with contributions that present from a range of different disciplinary perspectives. It sits outside the curriculum, so is not credit-bearing, running in the Lent term of year 1 and the Michaelmas term of year 2. It is graded on a non-numeric basis, with categories of Pass, Merit, Distinction and Fail. The result appears on the student transcript, but does not contribute to degree classification. Part of the assessment is a two-hour unseen written examination, taken outside of term time.

Another initiative was launched by the University of Aberdeen in 2010; it reshaped its curriculum ‘to produce graduates who are more rounded, better informed and more intellectually flexible’. The reforms aimed to maintain the ‘quality and depth of the traditional Scottish degree’, but at the same time expand the range of choice open to students. In the first and second years of their programme, students can choose either to ‘study around [your] core subject to gain breadth and context; add a language, a science or business study as an extra subject … or choose from a range of new multidisciplinary course based on real world problems’.

This is an example of encouraging diversification and exposure to new ways of thinking that is embedded within the curriculum, rather than sitting alongside. The Scottish system of four-year degrees makes this an especially attractive way of offering choice and diversity, as there is less pressure to fill the curriculum with disciplinary units.

An example in England is the University of Southampton, which introduced a Curriculum Innovation Programme, aimed at encouraging students to escape from their disciplinary silos and broaden their horizons by taking modules away from their home discipline and to enhance the research-led nature of teaching by introducing students to some of the interdisciplinary research being undertaken in the institution, such as climate change, web science and sustainability. A range of modules was developed, delivered and assessed in innovative ways, with the objective that students are able to choose from a menu of optional modules at some point during their studies.[note 2]



[2] See