What do programme directors do, and why does it matter?

As a lynchpin between departments and individual students, programme directors (PDs) are at the heart of teaching delivery.

In other words, they shape the student experience of learning, translating the big picture of the university’s aims and vision into the everyday realities. In the context of both the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and the Augar review, that makes the PD and their bundle of roles and responsibilities worth more attention.

In principle, the role of the PD in HE is a critical one as they usually have the primary responsibility on a day to day basis for ensuring relevant degrees, or groups of degrees, are delivered to a high standard to the students. This kind of “distributed leadership” model in such complex organisations as universities is valuable in encouraging greater responsiveness to the changing context and to the students themselves. But roles like don’t always come with a clear definition of scope and expectations – they take some individual interpretation and personal development.

What’s actually involved and how do their skills and behaviours have an impact on the university’s performance? We surveyed 89 PDs on the training they have received to carry out their role and how it links to the TEF outcomes.

What we found

We identified that there are 14 core activities that PDs are expected to undertake. Activities can broadly be categorised into: administrative, interactive and enforcement. These involve different skill sets, for example, the administrative activities require following prescribed processes to ensure programmes are effectively delivered – so skills in organisation, planning and attention to detail. The interactive role requires the ability to work on a personal level with students, faculty, support staff as well as industry, which includes skills such as tact, diplomacy and empathy. Finally, enforcement activities, for example, student disciplinary management, means skills such as accurate record keeping, fair‐mindedness and policy interpretation.

Overall, 32 per cent of the PDs had no training before undertaking their role, 17 per cent still had no training after their first year in post. Finally, 13 per cent had received no training at all. The majority of training that had been delivered was related to working with other university staff, with over a third of respondents saying they had this training before, within one year and regularly after appointment. Second was training in Student Recruitment, reflecting its status as a priority to many universities. Despite being top concerns for both the university and the students, Programme Delivery and Programme Quality, are ranked ninth and eleventh, respectively, for training, with the least amount of training was provided in Student Pastoral Care.

The PDs were asked how relevant they perceived their activities were to the TEF. Four of the core activities scored as over 90 per cent relevant to the TEF: Student Experience Management (97.4%), Programme Quality (94.8%), Programme Delivery (90.9%) and Assessment Management (90.7%). Student Disciplinary Management (51.4%), Student Recruitment (45.3%) and Programme Financial Management (17.6%) were ranked as the bottom three. They were also asked to score the impact their activities have on the TEF outcomes against each of the three TEF areas, and the results were similar to those for the question about relevance. Three out of the four top impact categories were the same, with just Assessment Management being replaced by Programme Admission in fourth place. Again, Programme Financial Management was ranked at the bottom of the table with Exam Board Management and Student Recruitment.

When these findings are compared with the training received, we found that broadly the more important an activity is to the TEF outcomes, the less likely PDs will have received training on it.

Impacting on TEF

So, finally, we also asked PDs to consider their ability to have an impact on their university’s TEF scores. For half of the TEF sub‐categories the respondents felt that they had over a 70 per cent ability to significantly or somewhat influence the results. In terms of how they saw their level of responsibility for the TEF sub-categories, in six of the categories they rated themselves as having either 100 or 75 per cent responsibility for the TEF score.

It’s clear that PDs see themselves as core players when it comes to the success (or otherwise) of their university in the TEF. But training isn’t being directed to areas where they can have the greatest impact. This may not come as much of surprise – but does provide the evidence of the opportunity for institutions to focus and drive the kinds of improvements in outcomes that the TEF and Augar – as well as the students – are looking for.

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