1 Introduction

1.1 Definitions and coverage

This chapter is intended as an aid for anyone who is undertaking the task of designing an undergraduate degree programme. Course design has become increasingly complex with the decision by universities to incorporate more subject-specific degrees into their undergraduate profiles in an attempt to attract larger numbers of students each year. This move has increased the provision of undergraduate programmes principally through more extensive intra- and cross-faculty collaboration. In addition, the changes have put added pressure on timetabling systems and have meant that institutions have had to become more aware of the issue of key skills, options and programme learning outcomes, particularly in cases where units/modules and courses are shared with other faculties/schools.

Structures and procedures differ from institution to institution. This chapter uses particular terms, such as units, modules, Boards of Studies, faculties and so on, which may not correspond exactly with titles or arrangements at different universities. However, the expectation is that each term will find an approximate translation to the circumstances of each institution.

There are numerous issues that need consideration in the development of a successful undergraduate programme and the following guide seeks to provide detailed information about this process. Sections 1.2 and 1.3 introduce the main areas for consideration, while section 2 provides detailed information about the process of course design and the issues that play a crucial role in the development of undergraduate programmes.

1.2 Key considerations in the preparatory stages of course design

QAA issues and benchmarking statements

The Quality Assessment Agency benchmarking statements are probably the best place to begin when planning a new undergraduate programme. These statements are clear indicators of the requirements of any course in economics and, although fairly open ended, they can act as a valuable guide when formulating the structure and content of a new undergraduate degree programme. As stated in the QAA documentation:

Subject benchmark statements set out expectations about standards of honours degrees in broad subject areas. They are about the conceptual framework that gives a discipline its coherence and identity, and they define what can be expected of a graduate in terms of the techniques and skills needed to develop understanding in the subject. They are benchmarks of the level of intellectual demand and challenge represented by an honours degree in the subject area concerned.
Benchmark statements help higher education institutions when they design and approve programmes. The statements help external examiners and academic reviewers to verify and compare standards. They also provide information for students and employers.

QAA benchmark statements for economics dictate that university undergraduate degree programmes in economics and economic subject-related disciplines should:

  • provide an in-depth knowledge of economics and enable students to apply the knowledge and understanding gained in this subject area;
  • enable students to study and apply the principles of economics to different types of practical situation that will be useful for future employment;
  • encourage ongoing critical, evaluative and strategic ways of thinking in all areas;
  • recognise the importance of the industry–education relationship and offer opportunities for learning in other environments;
  • enable students to undertake relevant postgraduate study;
  • provide successful graduates of the programme with an educational and training profile that will equip them for employment in a range of sectors.

As summarised by Livingstone and Matthews (2000): ‘The intention is that these subject-based benchmarks should provide explicit standards against which all degree courses in the country can be judged. More specifically the benchmark should provide an indication of the capabilities that we should expect of graduates of a particular subject, regardless of the institution of graduation.’

Programme specification

According to the QAA documentation:

Programme specifications are standard sets of information that each institution provides about its programmes. Each specification clarifies what knowledge, understanding, skills and other attributes a student will have developed on successfully completing a specific programme. It also provides details of teaching and learning methods, assessment, and subsequent career opportunities, and sets out how the programme relates to the qualifications framework.
This information allows prospective students to make comparisons and informed choices about the programmes they wish to study and provides useful guidance for recruiters of graduates.

Thus programme specifications draw all of the relevant information about the course together and present it clearly for the purposes of validation and student reference. The content of a programme specification normally includes:

  • educational aims of the programme;
  • learning outcomes of the programme;
  • programme structure;
  • support for student learning;
  • admissions requirements;
  • evaluation, quality assurance and maintenance of standards;
  • regulation of assessment;
  • indicators of quality and standards;
  • references;
  • mapping of:
    • key skills
    • curriculum skills
    • assessment.

Transferable skills

Transferable skills, or key skills, are now an essential feature in the course design process. In many cases the impetus for the introduction of key skills into undergraduate degree programmes has come from graduates and employers who have commented that students graduating with UK degrees often have good subject knowledge but are weak on key skills.

Employability is a key feature of any new undergraduate programme design process. The ‘Skills-Plus’ project, a joint venture by Lancaster, Manchester Metropolitan, Liverpool John Moores and Manchester universities, has been developed to identify ways of designing undergraduate programmes in order to enhance student employability and may prove to be a useful reference tool when considering how best to incorporate key skills into a specific programme.

In fact, key skills are already an implicit feature of most undergraduate degree programmes in economics, although until recently we have not been required to make the process of key skill acquisition explicit in the documentation of each available programme. As a result, we have been teaching and assessing key skills for several years, but without the documented mapping of these skills, our knowledge of the achievement by students in the area of key skill acquisition has always been somewhat patchy.

It is now a requirement of course design that we identify the key skills that a student will learn throughout a given programme and provide details about where and how these skills will be learned. Thus the programme specification needs to identify where each skill is being taught and what assessment is being used to document student achievement in this area. By tracking the process of key skill teaching throughout the programme, we are then able to ensure that no skill is overlooked through the process of option selection and we are able to assure prospective employers that specific targets and achievements have been met. This can be achieved through careful programme design and incorporating a key skills mapping exercise into the programme specification, which will enable you to identify clearly where students will attain and be evaluated in each skill. This in turn will enable you to ensure that at the curriculum/syllabus design stage you are building on what has gone before, thereby laying the foundations for units/modules that you might wish to incorporate into the later stages of the course.

Greater emphasis on lifelong learning, widening participation and other government initiatives has meant that the process of course delivery in higher education has had to change to meet the needs of this wider group of prospective students. While this guide is not intended to debate the value of the contribution of key skills to the undergraduate degree programme, it is worth noting that the incorporation of key skills and the recording of skill acquisition in programme specifications and programme learning outcomes serves to clarify the objectives of a course to a potential student.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has often commented that despite claims that different subject areas are making efforts to develop transferable skills in order to enhance the employability of their students, few examples have surfaced in quality audits related to consultations with employers about the structure and content of the undergraduate programme curriculum.

In response, many economics departments in the UK have introduced stronger links with employers both through the addition of an optional placement year and through Employer Advisory Committees. This has enabled departments to discuss first hand the types of skills, knowledge and qualities that employers most value. Such information has then been incorporated into new and existing undergraduate degree programmes in an attempt to make them more attractive to prospective students. This has largely been a valuable exercise. In many cases the discussions have led to additional skills-based exercises in units/modules throughout the undergraduate programme and has made employers more aware of the skills that students acquire during their undergraduate studies. In the increasingly competitive environment of higher education, students want concrete information about their employment prospects prior to joining a programme at any given institution. Thus visible links with employers, the acknowledgement that an undergraduate programme has incorporated skills specifically required by employers, and the ability to show strong graduate employment statistics are now essential features of the success of any undergraduate programme.

Top Tip: Reference to information from the South East Education Development Agency (SEEDA) about key skill development and the link between course design and employability can be useful when considering how units/modules link together within a specific programme.

1.3 Centralisation of the course design process

Centralisation of the course design process often helps in the coherence of the final programme structure. In the case of single honours degrees, having one person or a small team of people within a department who consider the syllabus, map course–unit or course–module links, identify learning outcomes, etc. ensures consistency both within the degree structure and across existing degrees. In the case of joint honours degrees, the centralisation process becomes even more important.

In addition to the issues related to single honours degree programmes, joint degrees, whether intra-faculty or cross-faculty, come with additional pitfalls. Learning outcomes for both subject areas need to be clearly defined and properly linked so that the marketing aspects of the course are convincing. Greater attention needs to be paid to the mapping of curriculum and key skills to ensure that there is balance between the two subject areas. Also, assessment patterns often emerge within a single department that complement the programme in which the units/modules naturally sit. Thus, over time, the assessment patterns for units/modules taught in the economics department have been amended to provide students with a balance of assessment that works well within the constraints of the academic year. Combining units/modules from an economics degree with those from another faculty or department that has its own successful assessment pattern may, initially, provide students with an unbalanced schedule of assessment in their programme. Thus the teaching of key skills, the assessment patterns and the balance of units/modules offered at each stage of the programme need to be carefully considered by those who can oversee the whole process to ensure consistency and balance.

In the case of joint degrees it is also necessary to consider the issue of course management. While one department will own and administer the degree, the input from the other department is essential for the smooth running of the programme and to ensure that students on the joint degree feel properly informed and managed. All too often the management of a joint programme is not clearly defined and students on the course lack the sense of belonging and support that is provided to single honours degree students. This problem can persist from the initial induction phase through to the provision of information, timetable arrangements where travel is required between two or more sites, and the degree of interest that students sense from the staff who are participating in, but not administering, the degree course. Where the degree is a collaborative effort between departments there may be less enthusiasm by staff to engage in the student learning experience outside of the lecture theatre or seminar sessions.

To escape this pitfall it is important that, when the degree is introduced, the course administrator has a liaison person from the joint department involved who can participate in student support, contribute to the induction programme, advise students on academic issues and be consulted for further information about programme issues where necessary. This sounds logical, but it is worth noting that it is often difficult to sustain interest and support from a department participating in a joint degree if it is not immediately responsible for the administration of that course. Ensuring that someone is assigned to this task and takes ownership at an early stage in the course design process is essential for successful course management.

Top Tip: Greater commitment by staff and more effective course management may be achieved by linking the programme to processes employed by each department for the monitoring of standards and quality. Thus including these programmes in both Boards of Studies will encourage all staff to identify and engage with the programme.