If you are building a house and your starting point is a pile of timber, bricks and tiles, you’re doing something wrong.
No house construction project would get very far without a detailed blueprint, which allows the architect to develop a plan and communicate it to everyone involved. Only then can you seek out the supplies you will need to turn this blueprint into reality.
The same is true for a university, where our pile of materials might include subjects, infrastructure and teaching technologies. Without the strong foundations of a well-considered programme architecture, a university risks squandering its resources and failing to deliver real benefits for students.
Programme architecture refers to the size and shape of a university’s educational portfolio. This includes the mix of degree types, disciplines, courses, and modules, as well as types of course delivery and use of technology in teaching. It also reflects considerations on programme and module decisions made by the different types of students – including full-time or part-time, domestic or international, commuter or residential – to name a few.
Central to a house’s design are the architects themselves, in this case, the university’s academic staff with organisational support, leadership and access to the information needed to make coordinated design decisions. And just like any business, universities need to get their programme mix right to make sure they’re achieving the most they can with the resources available.
As the occupant of any newly built home can attest, living in a space that has been thoughtfully designed can make life much easier.
For universities, a carefully considered programme architecture typically delivers improved performance. For students, having fewer programmes upon entering university makes it simpler to navigate the options and make informed selections. This can seem counter-intuitive, yet we know that too much choice reduces utility for an individual (see Barry Schwartz’ work). This can play out for students as they wade through long, complex and sometimes overlapping lists of potential programmes and modules:
- Students’ experience of selecting modules and constructing degrees through elective choices is made easier. They avoid being overwhelmed by choice and module combinations. We know of one university that removed 50 per cent of its active units and saw pleasing increases in its student experience scores. The university can invest its resources in a more focused and concentrated manner into the quality of teaching and learning because of the consolidation effect of the programme architecture process. Fewer modules also make it easier to share and embed innovative teaching methods.
- The range of programmes a university offers can communicate the institution’s distinctiveness. In a market environment, distinctiveness or competitive advantage is of growing importance, so a targeted programme portfolio can help significantly increase enrolments and tap into new markets.
- The module cost-analysis that typically underpins a programme architecture review, enables a much better understanding of the real costs of modules and programmes and provides information to faculties and administrators to improve cost controls. The financial benefits can be considerable. One university we worked with in Australia increased its surplus from 2.5 per cent to 6.5 per cent, with the transformation of its programme architecture making a significant contribution. For most universities, timetabling and utilisation of estates causes headaches; in some, it prevents the university from growing. An adjusted programme portfolio can unlock exponential benefits for the utilisation of space and enable a range of other strategic priorities.
Keys to success
All families will need to periodically discuss whether their house meets their needs, but rarely are these discussions seriously contemplating action. Similarly, most universities periodically review their programmes, but these are often tokenistic, with the status quo the usual winner. A more fundamental analysis of programme architecture is different and can also deliver transformative benefits.
Based on our experience at Nous Group we have distilled three success factors:
- Holistic analysis: where programme architecture takes an exclusively financial view, it will typically fail. A well-constructed review should be holistic and evaluate the performance of current and new programmes on their ability to fulfil multiple criteria, including value to students, market position, sustainability, coherence in the portfolio, alignment to strategy, and alignment to areas of research strength (where appropriate).
- Access to data: to analyse the architecture of a programme portfolio, you need access to robust internal and market-level data. Typically, the process requires at least 20 separate sources of data, which can be held in different parts of the university, and externally. The quantitative data in some cases must be supported by qualitative judgements, particularly in areas such as alignment to the university’s strategy. Having people in the university capable of accessing and interpreting the data is crucial to the robustness of the activity’s results.
- Genuine involvement and engagement: the analysis itself will not help the university reshape the portfolio, and certainly not sustainably, unless it engages with people on the ground – in its faculties, departments, and schools. Academic staff members provide powerful input into the assessment of programmes, will play an important role in interpreting the analytical output and forming recommendations, and are integral to putting in place the new portfolio. And the analysis and recommendation-building must engage people across the university – including strategy, planning and finance teams, teaching and learning innovation teams, timetabling and so on.
Programme architecture is only ever a means to an end. But it can be the blueprint that enables transformative change in a university’s relationship with its students: its educational offering. When universities get that right, they are usually well on their way to delivering a major part of their strategic aims, and indeed their reasons for being.