Creating a new university course is much more challenging than it first seems. A good idea is not enough to take a concept through to completion; demand and merit must be demonstrated, and the course must be put together and rigorously assessed, during this process market research is essential and then comes the ‘small’ matter of marketing.
To find out more about how this process works, we spoke to higher education professionals with first-hand knowledge. Below you’ll find expert insights from Dr Catherine Lee, Head of the Department of Education at Anglia Ruskin University along with Phil Maull, Head of Academic Quality Services at Swansea University and Dr Mark Skippen, Marketing Intelligence Manager, also at Swansea University.
There is little point creating a course that nobody is interested in, so it makes sense that the first step in any new course endeavour is to assess the demand. This market research process can take many forms: “We initially undertake market research and in particular consider what courses our competitors offer. We look to employment opportunities in the area, keep a keen eye on national and local initiatives in our field, as well as professional and statutory body requirements,” says Catherine from Anglia Ruskin University. As highlighted by Catherine, it’s not just an interest from students that universities have to consider. In order to transition these students from higher education and into employment, the course has to be attractive to employers too.
At Swansea University, Mark tells us, there is a strong focus on using data to better understand the demand for any given course. “Swansea University has implemented a rigorous approach to scoping, gap analysis and Market Intelligence based on publically available HESA data and other data sets available to HE, along with information generated from our International Development Office and network of agents across the globe. The University uses this data to inform a long term strategic development plan, which informs which programmes we then go on to develop through a business planning process,” he says.
Once demand for the course has been assessed, the university needs to work out whether it’s commercially feasible. “Any programmes which are proposed by Colleges must go through a rigorous business focused appraisal by the Programme Management Board, and are required to submit a full Market Intelligence Report, prepared by the Market Intelligence Team centrally, before being permitted to develop any programmes. Programmes are also assessed for their strategic viability and income generation potential,” says Phil.
Putting it together
Once the course has been deemed feasible, then begins the long journey of putting together a brand new course. Catherine tells us this process can take up to a year: “Market research takes place initially and then a team of academics design the course. The desired course outcomes inform the learning outcomes for each module which in turn decides the week by week module content and the module assessment tasks.”
After the course has been written, it must go through a validation process with a panel of experts in the field from other universities along with senior colleagues from within Anglia Ruskin University. “Course validation usually involves a presentation and scrutiny of the course content and design. It is then the panel’s job to recommend whether or not to allow the course to go ahead. Only after a successful validation, can a course be marketed on the university website,” says Catherine.
It is a similarly lengthy process at Swansea University, as Phil says: “Creating a whole new programme from scratch, particularly in a new subject area for the University, can be a complex and time consuming activity.” In terms of how long it takes, Mark tells us: “This can be limited by the promotion timeframes to ensure highest potential recruitment, and is informed by HEFCE’s i-MAP research and publications.” Nominal time frames are 18 months+ for an undergraduate programme and 12 months+ for a postgraduate taught programme. “However, with experienced and committed staff and available resources, this process can be much more swift to ensure it is responsive to market and employer demands,” says Phil.
If the University is convinced of the viability of the course, the Academic Proposal Team set about developing all the necessary segments required for a full programme, such as the curriculum and assessment strategy. “All of this is underpinned by Programme Delivery Plan to ensure development is managed to completion, and any blockers can be identified early and removed. The final stage is for the completed proposal (once approved within the College) to be scrutinised by the University’s Programme Approval Committee, with input from External Subject Specialists, Students and Employers, ensuring that the programme meets the required internal and external standards for delivery,” says Phil.
Marketing brand new courses
Once the course has been approved and created, it’s time to shout about it. Catherine tells us new courses are marketed on the university website, at open days, in brochures and – increasingly – on social media. We wondered if marketing a brand new course without a current cohort of students to vouch for it could be challenging, to which Catherine told us: “Courses rarely sit in isolation and are usually grouped together in departments and faculties. Existing students from other courses often act as ambassadors and speak to prospective students about their university experience.”
Mark explains how Swansea University begin their marketing before the course is actually launched: “We have a number of ways of marketing programmes, which have changed recently due to guidelines from the Competitions and Markets Authority to protect students. Once a programme is conceptualised and the markets identified, the University has established a risk based approach towards publicising programmes that will be coming soon, without opening these to application and recruitment. This approach enables us to promote new future programmes through a page on the website through which students can express their interest to be contacted when the programme is finally approved, thus building an initial relationship with potential applicants early in the development process.”
Once a programme has been approved, Mark tells us they utilise targeted marketing via various channels: “Dependent on the programme’s audience this can include the University prospectus, website, recruitment fairs, agents, open days, visit days and school visits, digital channels, and media.”
So as you can see, creating a brand new university course is no small feat. Just the simple act of getting an idea approved is a lengthy process and then comes the challenge of building a course from scratch, not to mention promoting it. But with strong systems in place and effective market research strategy, the process can be streamlined and made as effective as possible resulting in a positive experience for the university, students and employers. A win win situation!View some of our work in higher education