The programme specification is a key document. It is intended to be a definitive statement of the contents and organisation of a programme, so that students and other stakeholders can find out all they need to know about it. To put it in the words of QAA:
‘A programme specification is a concise description of the intended learning outcomes of an HE programme, and the means by which the outcomes are achieved and demonstrated.’
Although intended for students, many programme specifications have become documents dominated by jargon and ‘education-speak’. However, where programme specifications are to be part of the Key Information Sets that all universities are required to publish for potential applicants, this is likely to lead to redrafting of specifications to ensure that they are appropriately student friendly.
The emphasis on learning outcomes in the design of programme specifications is potentially helpful and can be seen as a foil to the obsession with contact hours that keeps appearing in ministerial statements and in the press. In other words, what is important is what a student can have achieved by 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.
Individual units are also expected to have their own learning outcomes associated with them, and the programme specification then shows how those units can be combined into a coherent programme. Having said that, the QAA also emphasises that:
‘a programme specification is not simply an aggregation of unit outcomes; it relates to the learning and attributes developed by the programme as a whole and which, in general, are typically in HE more than the sum of the parts’.
Most HEIs will have a standard template for the presentation of programme specifications, which will set the rules for drafting them. Notice that having a programme specification is not optional, as it is one of the key documents that will be audited as part of the QAA Institutional Review. Programmes will be judged by whether they deliver on the claims that are embedded in the specifications.