Inside Track - 6 November 2017 - Professor Tom Ward

Is more always better?


Over the last year I have discussed in many quarters the complexity of our taught offering, and this is a good moment to address some of the good questions that some of you have raised over the last year.
The drivers for this discussion are many but, as always, the central focus is on the quality of educational experience we can offer, and our capacity to deliver it.

Before going into this, it’s important to remember that the educational quality of the Leeds offer is exceptional – the effort of everyone reading this is reflected in external indicators like the TEF gold and the league table ranking successes. We challenge ourselves hard but should also congratulate each other!

Giving applicants and students more and more choice feels like a good thing, but in fact the picture is more mixed. The psychologist Barry Schwartz, in 'The Paradox of Choice', explores the complexity of the relationship between additional options and increased enjoyment, arguing that not only is there a steady reduction in marginal gain, but in some instances there is a tipping point beyond which additional choice is detrimental. Are some of our students struggling with the complexity of module choice, discovery themes, and programmes? I certainly meet students who are frustrated that the promise of enormous choice collides unhappily with timetabling realities.

There are also four pressing internal drivers for this discussion:

  1. We are all striving to balance workload and staff wellbeing. We care about our students and our subjects, and as a result work hard to support the development of both – so it makes sense to interrogate whether effort is being directed efficiently into things that support quality education. Directing programmes and leading modules takes real effort.
  2. We are bumping up against hard constraints in our ability to timetable teaching events and examinations, which risks impacting on the renowned overall student experience which helps draw students to Leeds in the first place.
  3. We need to pay attention to the balance between our offer and our ability to deliver. We already face considerable problems with module closures, certainly not because we offer too few, but perhaps because we promised too many. How often is the ability of a student to take advantage of the full offer of the Leeds Curriculum constrained by the timetable?
  4. Lastly, we need organisational headroom. When new ideas for programmes or modes of study come forward, to build on existing strengths or respond to external changes, I want to be in a position to say yes, and to act quickly if the case is strong. Being able to plant beautiful new seedlings is only possible if we are assiduous in weeding the garden.

All that said, let me now address the main questions that some of you have raised.

“Do we really have a complexity problem?”

Yes. Whatever you choose to measure – total number of programmes, total number of modules, number of students divided by number of modules – we are an outlier in the Russell Group. Not only that, but we are growing in complexity: the 2017 undergraduate prospectus boasted of 560 programmes, and the 2018 undergraduate prospectus boasts of 600+. There are many more in the pipeline. The total number of modules exceeds 4000, and the environment created by TEF, the Competition and Markets Authority1 and the coming regulatory changes, makes it more and more difficult to manage a module. There seem to be 600+ modules flagged as Discovery. Just looking at that example, the long-term idea of making Discovery more accessible through high quality online provision requires a manageable number of modules that students can navigate easily – our capacity to develop genuinely blended modes of delivery with high quality standards cannot be spread across too many modules.

“Is complexity really a driver of cost and workload?”

Yes. It can raise cost and workload in significant ways. Whilst it is difficult to generalise conditions for every module, we must be more vigilant to avoid the following types of scenario. If I run a module with tiny enrolment, then my department’s workload model recognises that as a proportion of my workload. However, that adds a real cost (the proportion of my time) to the University, and fails to compensate it with comparable fee income. The result is that someone, somewhere else in the University, must teach larger classes to compensate. Second, it creates administrative burden. A module or programme with one student on it requires timetabling of teaching events and examinations and quality assurance processes much as a module or programme with two hundred students does. Making a module available online for blended delivery also doesn’t scale in cost and complexity.

“Will addressing complexity solve the problem that the way we deliver education requires relatively high levels of effort and resource?”

No, not on its own. We need to address costs arising from variations in practice, and to improve our education information systems to match those of our competitors. Some variation is needed and adds to the quality of education, but some exists largely for historical reasons, and I am confident we can find ways to simplify the organisation. Getting to grips with programme and module proliferation is not the solution, but it is part of it.

“How big a change do you want to see?”

Some voices argue for a top-down approach, cutting off modules below certain enrolments or programmes with small enrolments, aiming at a specific target reduction. I won’t let this happen, because module and programme closure decisions have to be taken by people with the expert knowledge of how modules fit together, and how programmes feed into other programmes or link into other aspects of the educational offering or research environment.

My challenge to departments and to education leads is to engage with the data about their module enrolments as part of annual planning, and the main thing I want to see is a change of direction: instead of an annual increase in the number of modules, an annual decrease.

Data from the year 2014-15 shows that the average number of entrants to undergraduate programmes ranged from 12 (Edinburgh) to 47 (KCL) in the Russell Group (excluding Cambridge). Our average number was 13, and to move us to the next lowest number (Sheffield, at 18) would involve changing the number of programmes to about 450. If we set that target of 450 as an aspiration, we would still be one of the more complex offerings in the Russell Group but would create valuable headroom.

“What’s wrong with lots of little MAs?”

That is, what’s wrong with clever ways of assembling many programmes from a relatively modest number of modules? Clearly the cost of an additional programme largely or entirely built from existing modules is less than one involving many new modules – but the cost is not as small as you might think. A new programme needs to be defined, market tested, approved, advertised, timetabled, and so on. If a new programme is needed because the subject or the demand has shifted, then we need to react – but a strategic response involves evidence-based programme closure just as much as programme creation.

Is it true that “Senior management are closing modules and programmes”?

No. I want to make it very clear: there will be no cull from on high, because these decisions have to be made by people with deep knowledge of how the programmes and modules fit together and contribute to the intellectual life of the school, link into further study, and so on.

“What about my module?”

I know this can be painful and can engage understandable emotional attachments, but the reason we run modules is in service of the education of students. We don’t run modules for us – we run modules for them. Advanced modules of course have to relate to research themes, but I hope we are all ready to test module and programme viability with an open mind, putting the interests of students first.

“Don’t I need to create new modules to get through probation or achieve promotion?”

No. You need to make a real contribution to the quality of education we provide, and that can be done within existing modules, or in many other ways. I look forward to seeing contributions come forward in the form of helping with rationalization , and would strongly support it.

“Are you aiming to reposition the Leeds core offering of a wide array of programmes?”

No. Leeds is big enough – and, specifically, has great strength in education and research across enough disciplines – to maintain one of the broadest offers in the country. Both in individual disciplines and in joint honours programmes, we can continue to offer a special combination of breadth of programmes and choice within programmes, while slowing, and then reversing, the growth in the number of programmes. This breadth has been part of the Leeds offer for many years, and is entirely compatible with a modest steady reduction in the complexity for a few years.

“Is the Leeds Curriculum and the Discovery Themes structure going to supplant our position of having a wide offering?”

No. The relationship is not either a great diversity of programmes or the Leeds Curriculum. It is closer to this: in order to make good on the promise of the Leeds Curriculum and the Discovery Themes, we need to control the complexity of our module and programme proliferation, including Discovery modules. We absolutely can deliver both – but not if we allow the number of programmes and modules to simply grow and grow.

“What does a viable programme look like?”

A viable programme has adequate numbers to make it financially sustainable (to calibrate this, bear in mind that the average undergraduate programme at Birmingham, Manchester, Nottingham, UCL, Oxford, Durham, Liverpool, Newcastle, KCL had an entry cohort in the range 24 to 47 in 2014-15 while ours had an average entry cohort of 13). It has intellectual coherence, has an answer to the question “What attributes does a graduate from this programme have?”, and really delivers all that it promised to an applicant.

“What am I being asked to do?”

If you are involved in module and programme reviews at School level, you will have access to data about enrolments. I'd like to see, as part of every review, a consideration of viability and cost, and for Schools that are undertaking reviews of their curriculum this should be central to the discussion. If you are involved in Discovery themes, I'd like you to participate in a signification reduction of the modules flagged as Discovery to a much slimmer portfolio, closer to 10 per theme. If you are a Programme lead, use the enrolment data to test the viability of your programme and challenge your School to look at winding down non-viable programmes. As you review programmes, look at the creative use of portmanteau modules with less specific titles. This is a protection against staff changes, and helps us all respond to a rapidly changing world. Imagine how a third year module “Advanced topics in European politics” might have changed over the last few years, for example. Also look for opportunities to combine modules into larger ones – at the moment Leeds modules come in 15 different credit sizes, which is very hard to justify.

“What measurement will show progress?”

This is extremely difficult. There are ways to change descriptors and structures that could show a dramatic reduction – or growth – in the headline numbers without changing the fundamentals. For example, a ’with enterprise’ programme does add one to the total number of programmes but doesn’t really add to the complexity of our offer. What I want to see is movement in the right direction, a reduction in the difficulty and costs in exam timetabling, and a feeling of organisational headroom when we discuss new modes of study or new programme ideas. We will be paying close attention to analysis and metrics helping schools and faculties understand their particular context, through the Portfolio Steering Group chaired by Simon Baines, and a new metrics group.  More specifically, we will be consulting with the community of Directors of Student Education and Pro Deans about this, starting with their annual event.

Thanks to all who have reached the end of this rather lengthy and unconventional Inside Track column. This discussion will continue, and I look forward to hearing about creative and imaginative responses to the challenge.

Tom Ward

Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Student Education

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