Programme Specifications Guidance

The programme specification outlines a programme’s aims, learning outcomes, and modules, in addition to providing other important information.

This page provides guidance for completing the programme specification form (available on the form bank), including further information about answering questions relating to statements and frameworks produced by the Quality Assurance Agency. The guidance below is arranged in the order in which each area is encountered on the programme specification.

Guidance

QAA Subject Benchmark Statements

Subject Benchmark Statements should be used to inform the design of the programme; the list of Subject Benchmark Statements is available here. On the specification you need to outline how a statement was used, e.g. to inform the content of the programme or to ensure the appropriate level in the learning outcomes.

Make sure you refer to the full name of the particular subject benchmark statement(s) used in your answer. It is also recommended that you provide one or two specific examples of how the programme has been informed by the relevant statement. For example, you could quote a key programme outcome, and then quote the specific section(s) of the Subject Benchmark Statements from which it was derived. For example:

‘Subject benchmark statement used: X. The content of the programme, aims of the programme and the programme outcomes have been formulated using the above subject benchmark statement. This is shown by the range of subject specific knowledge/understanding and generic skills-based programme outcomes, which correspond to the relevant sections of the subject benchmark statement. The statement has also informed the standard of academic achievement that successful students are expected to demonstrate via the chosen assessment methods.’

Or:

‘The above-named subject benchmark statement has been used to inform the content of the programme, as well as the aims and the nature and standard of the programme outcomes (and the corresponding learning, teaching and assessment methods).’

Or:

‘The content of the programme, aims and programme outcomes have all been formulated using the above-named subject benchmark statement. In particular, the programme outcomes have been mapped against the subject specific knowledge/skills and the generic skills outlined in the statement.’

Or:

‘Though there is not a subject-specific benchmark statement for X, the benchmark statements for the related subjects of Y and Z have nonetheless been consulted in order to inform, in a general way, the aims of the degree and the knowledge and skills to be demonstrated through it, as well as general principles for teaching, learning, assessment, and standards.’

QAA Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications

The QAA Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ) are available to download from here. On the programme specification you need to state to which level of the framework your programme corresponds. Foundation degrees correspond to Level 5, Honours degrees to Level 6, Masters degrees to Level 7, and Doctoral degrees to Level 8. (Note that, as of February 2020, there are also characteristics for Foundation degrees). 

You should also state how the frameworks were used, e.g. in determining the name of the qualification.

The text below provides examples of good practice with regard to the use of the FHEQ. It is also recommended that you provide one or two specific examples of how the programme has been informed by the FHEQ. For example, you could quote one of the core aspects of the relevant qualification descriptor in the FHEQ and indicate to which of the programme outcomes it is particularly closely linked.

‘The programme corresponds to Level 6 of the FHEQ. The FHEQ has helped to define the level of academic achievement which is expected of students and this is reflected in the programme outcomes.’

Or:

‘The programme corresponds to Level 7 of the FHEQ. The qualification descriptor has informed the level of academic achievement expected of students (please see the programme outcomes) and, following on from this, the teaching, learning and assessment methods used on the programme.’

Or:

‘The programme corresponds to Level 6 of the FHEQ. The programme is aligned with the generic statement of outcomes set out in the qualification descriptor for Level 6 within the FHEQ. The programme outcomes are therefore derived from the list of abilities/skills that successful students typically demonstrate. The programme has been designed to ensure that graduates have the appropriate transferable skills and qualities for their future employment.’

Degree Characteristics for Masters and Doctoral Degrees

The specification has a question specifically referring to Postgraduate programmes. In February 2020, the QAA published Characteristics Statements for Doctoral and Masters degrees, which describe the distinctive features of qualifications at those levels within the Qualifications Frameworks. They describe the qualifications in terms of their purpose, general characteristics and generic outcomes, but do not include subject level detail. Please detail in the specification how the programme corresponds to this guidance. 

Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Bodies

If the programme is subject to accreditation, the programme specification should state how the requirements/guidelines of the Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Bodies (PSRB) have informed the design of the programme. As an example, ‘the programme learning outcomes are based on those published by IChemE’ or ‘the programme includes 30 hours of work-based learning’.

Inclusivity, Access and Student Support

As a University, we are committed to ensuring that our programmes and modules are inclusive of all students including: international, part-time, mature, those from different socio-economic backgrounds (class) and those with protected characteristics according to the Equality Act 2010 (age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage/civil partnership, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation).

All programmes and modules should therefore seek to promote equality of opportunity through ensuring they pose no barriers to applications, access, or progression for any student who meets the admissions criteria.

Comment briefly on how your School/Institute/Department promotes equality of opportunity through ensuring no barriers are posed to applications, access or progression for any protected group.

Click on this hyperlink to see a ‘Micro CPD’ lasting 90 seconds.

Further guidance can be obtained from Student Services.

Exemptions from Regulations (including from the Semesterised Structure)

The specification requires you to detail any regulatory exemptions that have been approved for the programme or have been requested (if the specification is for a new programme). This includes any exceptions relating to the semesterised teaching year structure, which requires modules to be generally 20 credits (with some exceptions) and to be taught and assessed in the same semester (there is more information on the semesterised structure here). 

Any exemption from University Regulations, including from the semesterised structure, needs University-level approval; your College Academic Policy Partner will be able to advise. Examples of exemptions include students having the option to retrieve a failure on a level H module or a programme having a different credit structure to those outlined in the Regulations. Regulatory exemptions will only be granted if there are sound reasons, e.g. if it is a requirement of the Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Body.

Fitness to Practise Regulations

The specification asks whether students on the programme will be subject to Fitness to Practise regulations. These regulations ensure that students meet professional standards of conduct for awards that lead to a professionally recognised qualification, for example Medicine, Initial Teacher Training, Dentistry, and Social Work. Students who register on these programmes must sign and abide by a programme-specific Code of Professional Conduct.

Further information can be obtained from Student Conduct, including a list of programmes currently subject to Fitness to Practise regulations. 

Learning Outcomes

This section of the specification is divided into ‘Students are expected to have knowledge and understanding of’ and ‘Students are expected to have attained the following skills and other attributes’. Each row below should contain a different ‘knowledge and understanding’ or ‘skills and other attributes’ outcome (you can add or remove rows as necessary). Please ensure you refer to Future Skills in the learning outcomes, as these must be embedded in all programmes and clearly articulated for students.

The next column should outline the corresponding teaching and learning methods that will be employed to ensure students can achieve the stated outcome, e.g. ‘lectures’, ‘completion of dissertation’, ‘guided research’, ‘laboratory demonstrations’.

All learning outcomes must be assessed by means of a summative assessment, which is detailed in the next column: failure to achieve all stated learning outcomes results in a student’s failure on the programme.

The fourth column requires you to detail the level of qualification associated with fulfilment of this learning outcome. If more than one qualification may be available (including alternative qualifications) it is important to be able to distinguish which learning outcomes relate to each level of qualification. For example, for a BSc the last column would be ‘CertHE/DipHE/BSc’ for learning outcomes that would be met in the first year of the course (after which a student could exit with a Certificate of Higher Education), whereas just ‘BSc’ would indicate that the learning outcomes would only be met in the final year, e.g. research skills that are assessed via a final year dissertation. 

In the final column you should state the major, minor, specialism, pathway etc. to which the learning outcome relates. For example, the learning outcome could be linked to an English major, Computer Science minor, or a particular interdisciplinary pathway. If the programme doesn't have a major, minor, pathway etc. this can be left blank. 

Programme Requirements

This section is used to detail the modules that form the programme. This part of the specification is usually divided into three sections (and note that the tables and rows can be added/deleted as required). The expectation is that for UG programmes the first section would outline 120 credits of LC modules, which would lead to a Certificate of Higher Education (CertHE), with the pathways and ‘exit routes’ potentially available to students at the end of Stage 1 clearly articulated. This would be followed by 120 credits at LI, leading to 240 credits and a Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE), and the final section the last 120 credits, leading to 360 credits in total and the relevant Bachelor’s degree (BA, BSc etc.). For Masters programmes, the three sections can be used to detail the modules required for the different potential exit qualifications: PG Certificate (60 credits), PG Diploma (120 credits), and a Masters (180 credits). Alternatively, for full-time Masters with no alternative exit qualifications, only one section needs to be used.

The columns should be used to list the modules’ title, credits, level, module code (if known), and semester of delivery. The ‘effective from’ column should be used to indicate from when the relevant module/change is effective. For example, for a new standard 3-year UG programme launching in 23/24, the LC modules would be effective from 23/24, the LI modules from 24/25, and LH modules from 25/26. This section is also important when making modifications to programmes and allows you to make phased changes, e.g. if a series of modules are being introduced over a few years. If modules are being withdrawn, they should be struck through on the specification and the ‘effective from’ should indicate the first year in which it will no longer run.

The 'subject attribute' column must be completed if the module will contribute to a particular major or minor, or a named pathway, e.g. the module's subject attribute could be 'British History' and the credits would contribute to students achieving the degree 'BA History (British History)'. 

Ensure you detail any rules that dictate the choice of optional modules and that optional modules are clearly divided into baskets, i.e. students will choose one module from each basket, rather than choosing multiple modules from a single list. The baskets can be given meaningful names, which should be listed on the specification. 

Data for Programme Factsheet - No Longer Required

As of October 2021, the 'estimated data for programme factsheets' table has been removed from the programme specification as this data is now collected through the separate programme factsheet exercise, rather than through the specification.  

   

Frequently Asked Questions and Guidance

 

Creating Major/Minor and Joint Degrees: ‘Whole’ vs ‘Half’ Programme Specification

A ‘half’ programme specification covers only one part of a course, i.e. it is a specification that only has the programme aims, learning outcomes, and modules related to, e.g., a major, minor, one half of a joint course, or an intercalated year. In deciding how to approach the paperwork, please consider the below; either approach is valid, but colleagues should consider mitigation of the cons for each.  

A ‘half’ specification approach could be particularly appropriate if:

  • You’re creating a major/minor that could be slotted into multiple other degrees, and you don’t necessarily know what these are yet. 
  • The major/minor has clear standalone aims, learning outcomes, and modules that can be clearly indicated on the specification.
  • You’re setting up an intercalated year that can be added to multiple other degrees. 

Pros of the ‘half’ specification approach: 

  • Less paperwork, as you only add the aims, learning outcomes, and modules that relate to one part of the degree. 
  • The specification can be shared with other areas across UoB, so they can consider whether they wish to add the major/minor to their degrees.
  • It is clear which School/Institute and College should lead on the approval of the paperwork (areas are always strongly advised to consult with any other areas of the University that may be affected by any programme developments). 

Cons: 

  • The degree is not reviewed as a whole, therefore major/minor or joint degrees could appear to be less coherent, e.g. there could be repetition across learning outcomes (note it is expected that there is always communication between ‘partner’ Schools/Institutes).
  • Similarly, it would be more difficult to ensure Future Skills requirements are being met across the course as a whole.  

Having a whole specification for the degree, covering both elements, could be particularly appropriate if: 

  • The programme is based on an existing joint degree that has a combined specification for both halves, e.g. an Adaptive major/minor or joint degree that is based on an existing joint honours programme.
  • There will be a limited number of combinations, e.g. courses with a defined major/minor.
  • The programme is an interdisciplinary Discovery degree.  

Pros:  

  • Ensures the programme learning outcomes and modules are coherent and complementary, and avoids any repetition, as they will be approached as a whole.
  • Makes it easier to identify any potential gaps in Future Skills or incoherence in other elements of the specification. 
  • Clearly indicates which combinations of subjects are permitted. 
  • Allows the course to be considered in terms of the appropriateness of the fit of the major and minor. 

Cons: 

  • Could be harder to offer either part as a standalone major/minor to other areas as the different parts cannot be easily separated.  

Does each individual programme need its own specification, e.g. Dubai and Edgbaston, or part-time and full-time programmes?

The specification outlines the programme’s aims, learning outcomes, and modules, so generally each programme will need its own specification. This includes distance learning or transnational versions of campus programmes (e.g. programmes running in Dubai), as these programmes will have different modules attached (as well as other differences). Having separate specifications also reduces the chance of confusion.

There are some exceptions to this. Part-time programmes can be included on the same specification as the full-time version, assuming they have the same structure. Make sure the programme code is included and that it is clear (if you are submitting a programme proposal) that a part-time version is required.

Similarly, alternative exit qualifications can appear on the same specification; the programme requirements section can be used to outline the modules associated with each award (CertHE, DipHE etc.). 

Do all programmes of study have programme specifications? What about PGR programmes?

There are programmes that have programme codes but that do not have specifications. These include standard PhD programmes (that have no taught content) and affiliate programmes, i.e. programmes set up (often at the department level) to allow students to register on a small number of modules. There are some PGR programmes that require a specification, such as professional doctorates, PhDs with integrated study, or MRes programmes, i.e. programmes that include any taught content. As for any taught programme they should provide the programme’s aims, learning outcomes etc. and the modules that are attached the programme.

What is the HECoS code used for?

Higher Education Classification of Subjects (HECoS) codes replaced JACS codes from 18/19 onwards. They are used by a range of stakeholders to classify subjects of study for several purposes, including league tables and National Student Survey results publication. If you are unsure of which HECoS code to choose, please contact your College Planning Partner.

Where else will the programme aims appear?

The programme aims are published on the University of Birmingham’s website. They are intended to provide information to prospective students, current students and, potentially, to employers looking at students’ transcripts.

What should I include in the programme aims?

The programme aims section on the specification should include (but is not limited to):

  • A general overview of the programme and its content, focussing on any innovative or distinctive elements.
  • The skills that students will develop.
  • The experiences students will have (you can mention here any placements or trips that are a core part of the programme).
  • A description of the areas of work or further study to which graduates might progress.

What is a collaborative arrangement?

It is an arrangement whereby learning opportunities are provided to students in collaboration with another party, and which leads to an award of the University of Birmingham. If creating a new collaborative programme, before engaging with the programme approval process, a collaborative arrangement needs to be approved in principle by the Collaborative Provision Committee (see the proposing a new programme page for further information). 

 

   

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