The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

7.2 Economies of scale: combining an academically coherent yet flexible framework

In the provision of a Master’s degree programme there are inherent economies of scale; from the captive undergraduate student cohort for marketing your postgraduate degrees, to shared administrative costs across all department programmes. However, most important of these for us to consider are specialist faculty members whose research interests combine with postgraduate modules offered, and from the provision of combining degree streams to form a common programme of core economics modules which will form the basis of students’ advanced knowledge of economic concepts to yield a rounded master’s level programme. As previously noted, when developing a new degree stream, you need to focus your efforts on providing specific degree streams which match students’ interests. The generic MSc in Economics is offered at numerous institutions and gives little opportunity to differentiate a department from the competition of established institutions who already offer this degree stream. Hence, as an alternative the proposed degree stream could focus on the market demand and play to the department’s and academics’ strengths as these are more important in attracting students to the course.

Curriculum design clearly plays a crucial role in developing an academically coherent yet flexible PGT degree framework to equip students with an advanced level of understanding. One option frequently favoured is to divide the course structure between the autumn and spring semesters; the former allows the provision of underpinning theoretical concepts, with the degree specific, applied/practical modules following on during the spring semester. With these skills, students are then prepared to undertake their substantial independent research (dissertation) component during the summer semester to showcase their full skills and develop their research techniques. Due to the nature of this underpinning theory, which has to be broad and thorough in training economics students for their careers after their degree, there are numerous synergies between any degree streams. Therefore, academically, these initial modules would be broadly similar and could be more coherently and rigorously provided in one core module for each key economics subject, namely Macroeconomics, Microeconomics and Econometrics. This helps ensure that students are exposed to the full range of advanced levels of theoretical knowledge of what would be expected from an Economics Masters student without important subjects being excluded, as they do not fit in with the applied aspects of the degree stream they are pursuing.

Typically, a PGT degree programme requires the completion of 180 credits. Each semester thus requires 60 credits to be taken, with each module usually consisting of either 15 credits or 20 credits, equivalent to three or four modules respectively; although of course exactly how many postgraduate credits each module constitutes is usually defined by the school within which you are based. Given that the three core modules would best be provided during the autumn semester, this would account for the entire allocation if each module is 20 credits, or leaves one extra module if a less extensive 15-credits model was adopted (e.g. Research Methods).

In contrast, the spring semester is devoted entirely to the provision of specialist taught modules and sees the cohort split into their degree streams, with the provision of optional/elective modules where they can be accommodated. By following this structure, degree streams can make best use of faculty members, with those members who have their research interests aligned with specific streams providing the specialist spring semester modules, and where possible, members whose interests lie away from these areas providing either the advanced core courses, or substituting for those faculty members in undergraduate tuition.

The hidden strength of this block structure lies in the flexible adjustment process to respond to the dynamic state of the postgraduate market. Through offering a common core autumn semester and with two subject specific applied modules in the spring semester, an additional degree stream can be offered with only the need to provide a minimum of two new course-specific modules during the spring semester. Moreover, this also works in reverse if a stream is withdrawn, for example, due to below prescribed student quota numbers to make the course viable or staff unavailability, so that only two modules then need to be dropped. In this process, students could be notified and moved to another stream if they consent, and still follow a broad economics degree albeit with a different specialism. Furthermore, optional modules can be open to the whole cohort, as all would have the necessary pre-requisites to follow these modules, thereby saving on the number of options which would need to be provided through scale economies.

This system acknowledges the dynamic state of the curriculum design, as academic coherence of students engaged on the programme and accompanying feedback would ensure that a high-quality rigorous autumn semester in core advanced economic principles was provided, together with the flexibility to allow the expansion or contraction of taught postgraduate degree streams effortlessly. The constant evaluation feeding through to the content and teaching strategies employed ensures the programme remains strong but flexible, all without changing the fundamentals of the curriculum structure whilst efficiently utilising faculty members.

Lastly, serious consideration needs to be given to the entry requirements. As noted, any student who has a straight economics undergraduate degree, or a joint degree with at least 50 per cent of their components in economics courses, together with meeting the overall entry requirements of a second-class degree, would face little problem. However, consideration needs to be given to obtaining the transcripts of students with joint degrees, since they could possess weak skills in economics but hide these problems by boosting their degree average in their other degree component. Hence, it might be in the students’ best interests to follow the pre-Master’s programme if they are likely to perform poorly in the PGT programme. Secondly, there are issues as to whether it is permissible to allow students with minimum economics training to follow a specific programme, especially those who have a business background but limited knowledge of economics. These students would need to attend the pre-sessional course in order to acquire the full range of skills needed; whether they have the skills necessary to succeed would be a judgement call falling to an experienced academic admissions tutor.

Alternatively, institutions could avoid this through requiring a prescribed set of economics training prior to arrival, whilst requiring applicants not meeting this, yet possessing most of the necessary skills, to polish them through the pre-sessional. This particularly applies to those returning to education after being employed in an economics-related position, but do not necessarily have traditional qualifications.

The challenge is to widen the entry requirement scope to allow those students who have the ability to succeed without admitting those students who would perform poorly and for their own individual welfare would be better off pursuing the pre-Master’s programme. Often this is a difficult judgement call requiring a case-by-case review of the candidate.