I’ve recently been looking into course approval and the timelines used by universities in the design, development and validation of new courses. I asked a network of quality staff to share practice and this post is based on their (anonymised) responses. In this post I also contrast the approaches taken by the respondents with the findings of the main research study published in this area called i-Map (Innovation in the Market Assurance of New Programmes).
My query to the network asked about deadlines for the initial (or outline) approval stage in the development of new courses (including when a course may be advertised ‘subject to validation’) and deadlines for the approval process to be completed (i.e. a course is validated). I also asked how these deadlines had been determined.
The grid below illustrates the responses by showing the timelines operated by the institutions that responded to the query based on a 2018/19 start date.
The most striking feature of the responses received was the variety of approaches taken and timelines in operation. The institutions can broadly be grouped by the final approval stage, as show in green. The first group is those requiring at least a 17-month lead-in time from approval to commencement of the course (institution numbers 1-3); a group following a timeline of around 15 months (4-7); and a final group operating a timeline of 12 months or less (8-12). NB: there was a thirteenth respondent operating a laissez-faire approach with start dates set locally and no deadlines in their process.
Drivers for course approval timelines
The respondents to the query cited a number of drivers influencing their approval timelines. These included:
- deadlines for the production of the printed prospectus for undergraduate courses
- the timeline operated by UCAS
- recruitment activities, such as recruitment fairs and open days
- CMA (Competition & Markets Authority) guidance (see below)
- strategic planning processes
Typically, those with the longer lead-in times linked their process to the production of the printed prospectus. The majority applied their deadlines to standard undergraduate courses with courses operating under a ‘closed recruitment’ model, such as commissioned courses and those fulfilling strict PSRB requirements, typically following much shorter, more flexible timelines.
In respect of sector reference points the UK Quality Code only advises (i.e. it is not stated in the chapter expectation or indicators) that:
Higher education providers make clear the processes to be followed for the design, development and approval of courses. This includes responsibility for initiating and managing the process, indicative, realistic timescales, and the criteria on which decisions are taken. (11, QAA, 2013, my italics)
A more directive approach is taken by the CMA through their guidance on consumer law requirements. This states that:
To comply with the CPRs you must provide prospective students with material information – including about the courses you offer, the structure of courses, and the fees/costs. This should be given before they make a decision about which courses and HE providers to apply to. (5, CMA, 2015)
The line about providing material information ‘before they make a decision’ points to a link with institutions’ offer processes and the UCAS application deadline, which is 15th January 2018 for the majority of courses starting in September 2018. This suggests that courses validated after this point may not fulfil the guidance. A few institutions’ responses to the query stated that they would not make offers to applicants until the full approval process had been concluded, whereas many would advertise and recruit students after an initial approval stage with a caveat that the course was ‘subject to validation’.
The main research project in this area is i-MAP, which reported in 2012 with a follow-up study in 2014/15. According to the i-MAP website the project investigated best practice in how universities manage the strategic development of their academic portfolios.
The project report drew on an evidence base provided by over 80 higher education institutions either by direct involvement in the project, attending project events or providing data.
Timing of new courses
The section in the 2012 report on ‘Launching New Programmes’ is worth quoting from:
The timing of when a new course is introduced to the market has a strong impact on success… i-MAP found evidence that the timetable for new course development is sometimes not aligned with the recruitment cycle, so the timing of entry into the market becomes sub optimal; being too late for the UCAS application deadlines was an often cited example. …
There is a perceived pressure to develop new programmes quickly and “go to market” in as short a timeframe as possible. Speed to market is often taken to be an indicator of innovation, enterprise and responsiveness. Late entry into the market is in part a function of this speed to market imperative but also reflects weak understanding in the sector about the impact of late market entry. There is little evidence that speed to market delivers success; the evidence points to a contrary conclusion. (11, Coyle and Roberts, 2012)
The key recommendations in the report (p.17-19) include linking new course development to the recruitment cycle and taking a project management approach to new programme development. The Times Higher Education reported the study with the headline ‘One in four new courses attracts no students, i-Map finds’ and the findings of the study point to an earlier timeline as leading to greater success in recruiting a viable cohort.
Some of the institutions responding to the query with extended timelines had only recently this approach and it was too early to evaluate its success. It’s likely that more institutions will move to a similar arrangement over time.
Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) (2015) ‘Advice for higher education providers and undergraduate students – Information on your consumer law obligations/rights’. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/428549/HE_providers_-_advice_on_consumer_protection_law.pdf [Accessed 20 March 2017]
Coyle, P and Roberts, D (2012) Innovation in the Market Assurance of new Programmes, i-MAP Project [online]. Available at: http://i-map.org.uk/onewebmedia/i-MAP_guidance_2015.pdf [Accessed 20 March 2017]
Cunnane, S (2011) ‘One in four new courses attracts no students, i-Map finds’ Times Higher Education [online]. 8th December 2011. Available at: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/one-in-four-new-courses-attracts-no-students-i-map-finds/418366.article [Accessed 22 March 2017]
Havergal, C (2015) ‘Only one in four new courses attracts enough students, study suggests’ Times Higher Education [online]. 8th October 2015. Available at: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/only-one-four-new-degree-courses-attracts-enough-students-study-suggests [Accessed 22 March 2017]
Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) (2013) UK Quality Code for Higher Education Part B1: Programme Design, Development and Approval [online]. Available at: http://www.qaa.ac.uk/publications/information-and-guidance/uk-quality-code-for-higher-education-chapter-b1-programme-design-development-and-approval [Accessed 20 March 2017]