HE Speak

I’ve been considering recently (again) the use of terminology in higher education and how it can be easy to retreat to familiar terms or perpetuate confusion without thinking of the relevance to students.

The interchangeable use of the terms ‘course’ and ‘programme’ is an example of this. They are both so commonplace that there is little hope of clarifying the difference between them and their use is symptomatic of the breadth of audiences higher education seeks to address.

From the QAA’s Glossary[1]:

  • Course: “A programme or module of study”.
  • Programme (of study): “An approved course of study that provides a coherent learning experience and normally leads to a qualification”.

Am I missing something here?

Despite the apparent confusion there is a noticeable pattern in the use of the two terms. An internet search for ‘degree programme’ provides links to university sites whereas ‘degree course’ brings-up some of the sector-wide guides and admissions services aimed at students or applicants – UCAS, Whatuni. This reveals students’, and the wider public’s, use of ‘course’: the dialogue when you first arrive at university (alongside where are you from? What did you do at A-Level?) is not about programmes, but what course are you on?

And yet, the QAA’s UK Quality Code uses ‘programme’ exclusively and universities are required to produce ‘programme specifications’. Here is one of the few attempts to define the two terms alongside each other, from the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS), which places ‘programme’ where students and applicants would see ‘course’:

“By programme we mean a whole programme of study leading to an award, usually a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree, certificate or diploma.  Course can mean an element or unit which combines with others to constitute a programme, or a short (one year or less) offering which may or may not be credit-bearing, but from which students would not ‘graduate’ with an award.”[2]

How would you describe your studies at university?


[1] http://www.qaa.ac.uk/about-us/glossary

[2] https://www.soas.ac.uk/add/qualityassurance/quality-assurance-handbook/a/ (see A1)

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