What is a 'course' in higher education? It depends who you ask.

HESA has published an interesting document on the definition of the word ‘course’. The report outlines the differing definitions of ‘course’ used by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) and other players in higher education. As I noted in my previous posts, this poses many difficulties for those us seeking the answer to the basic question—how many people are studying ‘X’?

Only last week the Times Higher Education ran an article under the headline ‘1 in 4 new undergraduate courses fails to attract any students’. However, the truth here is that courses are certain combinations of modules and subjects, not distinct entities. A university can offer a ‘course’ in Criminology, Accountancy and Canadian Studies on the grounds that it is a feasible combination in terms of the timetable. The question of whether or not students choose this ‘course’ is a different one to the question of whether programmes in Criminology, Accountancy or Canadian Studies departments and courses are viable.

In May this year, it was reported that London Metropolitan University was cutting 400 courses. Whilst it should be acknowledged that departments and jobs have been threatened at the institution, it is quite a different issue to the question of the number of subjects on offer and the number of staff there will be to teach them.

Interestingly, the collection of data for the Key Information Set (KIS) could lead to the end of certain offerings – not because they are bad courses, are expensive to run or even that they have low numbers of students – but because of the extpense of reporting on each combination. It appears that each ‘course’ will require its own KIS (which will report on employability, salary outcomes etc. ). So a BA (Hons) ‘course’ in Criminology, Accountancy and Canadian Studies would require its own KIS which would be different than those for each of those subjects as a single honours subject or in combination with other subjects. If this is indeed the case then Malcolm Gilles, quoted in the THE sums up the situation poignantly:

…the new student information requirements would also have an impact on decisions about which courses to keep. Why keep running courses that don't attract many students, especially now that you will have the cost of producing a Key Information Set for every course you offer? If you have only one student or even zero enrolment, [how will you record employability] for that course in the KIS? Such requirements would force universities to weed those courses out.

Could an unintended consequence of the KIS the death of joint and combined degrees or at least the end of ‘non-cognate’ combinations? Working in languages where joint and combined courses are particularly common this could become a new threat to the subject.

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1 thought on “What is a 'course' in higher education? It depends who you ask.

  1. Your point about KIS and all the different subject combinations is an interesting one, John. I think it would be worth following this up to see how it develops.

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