5. Building the core

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’.[1] 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 units 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 units 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 units, or it may be that students can choose other units (e.g. languages) from outside their core discipline. This may be one way of enabling students to enhance their employability, and is discussed in section 9.

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. This is discussed further in section 5.5.

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. This will be discussed further in section 6.

5.2 Key dimensions of curriculum design

One key aspect that will colour curriculum design is the ‘short-fat’ versus ‘long-thin’ decision. This is almost certainly the result of an institution-level policy. ‘Short-fat’ describes the situation in which the academic year is split into two ‘semesters’, with students taking half of their units in each semester, probably being examined at the end of each semester. ‘Long-thin’ has students taking all of their units spread across the academic year. There are strengths and weaknesses of each approach.

This issue cannot be divorced from the question of how many units a student is required to take in a year, and there is a trade-off between the flexibility of the curriculum and its focus. It may be argued that taking fewer units at any one time allows students to concentrate their studies, rather than dividing their efforts and attention between myriad different topics.

A long-thin approach may thus be most appropriate where students take a relatively small number of units. However, although this gives students time for reflection, it may come at the expense of flexibility. On the other hand, where students follow a relatively large number of units in a year, a short-fat approach enables them to focus, but may encourage pigeon-holing and in some circumstances can lead to loss of continuity.

An illustration of this can be seen at the University of Southampton, where the institution moved to a semester pattern in 1995, with most programmes adopting a structure in which students take 4 units per semester (i.e. 8 units in a year). The School of Law opted out of semesterisation, and created ‘double’ units, teaching 4 long-fat units across the year, realising that students would find difficulty in studying 8 units concurrently.

Can we identify an optimum number of units for a year’s study?

For a programme where students are taught in a long-thin pattern, one possibility would be that adopted by Southampton’s Law School, of 4 x 30 CATS units. Students under such a scheme can focus on their 4 units, analyse issues in depth and have time to reflect. In Part 3, 1 unit could be a dissertation or research project. However, such a structure places limits on student choice, unless some of the units present hybrid contents, perhaps by presenting material from a range of applied areas. An alternative solution would be to create some ‘half’ units. However, in a 4 unit per year pattern, students may also face high risk from having made unwise choices. A 6 x 20 CATS system introduces more flexibility but forces students to spread their efforts more thinly – but maintains time for thinking and reflection. It is possible that teaching and assessment could be phased such that some weeks could focus on a subset of the units.

Under a short-fat system, a 6 x 10 CATS per semester pattern fragments student effort without the benefit of reflection time – and increases assessment loads substantially, especially where there is a reluctance to move away from examinations as the prime assessment mode. A 4 x 15 CATS per semester pattern is more effective, and can be combined with a double (30 CATS) dissertation or research project in the final year.

5.3 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.[1] 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 sequencing of material is not independent of the curriculum architecture. The flexibility of the short-fat system could allow students to follow, say, micro and maths in the first half of the year, and macro and stats in the second half. This is more difficult under a long-thin structure, where students will probably have to take all four simultaneously, although conceivably it would be possible to concentrate on micro in Part 1, leaving macro until the following year.

The transition between levels needs to be carefully planned, as this can be equally as difficult as the transition from A-level to university. ;The step-up into Part 2 can be a large one, and it may be wise to build in some overlap at the beginning of the Part 2 units. For example, under a short-fat curriculum students might take micro in the first semester of Part 1 and then do no further micro until they meet micro theory in the first semester of Part 2, at which time it can be quite a shock to the system!

5.4 Degree classification or GPA?

Several universities in the UK have been opening discussions on some key issues that could affect curriculum design in the future. In particular, there have been debates about the future of degree classifications, and whether there should be a move towards a grade-point average system. Among the implications of such a move would be that the differential weighting of the parts/years of a degree would become less necessary, as the focus would move away from finding ways of aggregating marks towards the (more helpful) student transcripts. This could in turn mean that there would be more flexibility in scheduling optional units – for example, by having some units being taken by second and third-year students together. After all, the key requirement from QAA for a student to be eligible for an honours degree is that 90 credits have been achieved at level 6 (Part/year 3). It could be argued that although it is crucial to take (say) Micro Theory 2 before Micro Theory 3, it would not really matter whether a student took Development Economics in year 2 and Labour Economics in year 3, or vice versa. Of course, a decision to move to a GPA system will be an institutional one, but this could begin to happen quite soon, and when it does it may have implications for curriculum design.

5.5 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. 

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 unit, do the units studied abroad align with the pertinent learning outcomes? This will require careful scrutiny of the unit 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.