Reflecting on Curriculum Development

Penny Welch

School of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences, University of Wolverhampton, Stafford Street, Wolverhampton, WV1 1SB

Tel: 01902 322466  Fax: 01902 322739  Email:


[Originally presented at the Humanities and Arts Higher Education Network conference in October 2000.]


The workshop explored participants’ experiences of curriculum development.  The topic was chosen in the belief that, during the process of designing or revising programmes of study, academics draw on their conceptions of the subject and their attitudes to prevailing professional and institutional agendas on learning and teaching.  Curriculum development is usually a collaborative activity, offering opportunities for debate and discussion that may not occur at other times.  It was anticipated that conference delegates would find it illuminating to reflect on the extent to which the issues raised by course planning had changed over the last 10 or 15 years and to compare their experiences with each other.  The workshop format allowed extensive discussion which was then summarized in the reports back.  This written piece provides a contextual introduction (more detailed than that provided at the conference), the questions for discussion and the conclusions that were reached.


It is less comfortable to work or study in higher education in the UK today than it used to be ten or fifteen years ago.  Student poverty and indebtedness, staff workloads and declining pay levels, frequent government initiatives and a much higher public profile for the sector make life harder for the majority of people in universities and colleges.  Underfunding, combined with the requirement to balance the books, builds job insecurity - both in the form of temporary contracts and in the form of threatened or actual redundancies - into the system.  Kinman and Jones, in a survey for the Association of University Teachers (AUT) earlier this year, found high levels of stress-related illness among academics (25% in the preceding twelve months) and strong feelings that they were being affected negatively by too many changes (75% of the whole sample). (Kinman and Jones, 2000)

The nature of these changes has been addressed by a number of writers.  Many of them conclude that government control over institutions and institutional control over academics have both grown considerably over the last 15 years.   As early as 1992, Ronald Barnett wrote ‘What is new about contemporary developments is the way in which the curriculum (at least in the UK) is now being colonized by the state, with unifying agendas being urged onto the academic community.’  (Barnett, 1992: 7).  Mary Tasker and David Packham were concerned about the values that governments were pressing higher education to adopt.  ‘If this tendency (to merge business values with those of HE) proceeds unchecked universities will no longer be able to fulfil their vital role in a free society - the advancement of new and controversial ideas and the education of their students to think critically and autonomously.’  (Tasker and Packham, 1994: 182).   The fear that critical thought and academic freedom could be curtailed is expressed even more forcibly by the following writers in their discussion of institutional mission statements.  ‘No longer are academics to be allowed to define their own goals and objectives:  these will be determined at institutional level and in response to government objectives and directives.  (Mackay, Scott and Smith, 1995)

The Conservative party was in government for the period 1985 - 1997 when the size, shape and ethos of higher education in the UK changed significantly.   The current Labour government has maintained many aspects of previous policy including the insistence that higher education must serve the needs of the UK economy.  It could be argued that New Labour have gone even further than its predecessors in defining higher education in predominantly instrumental terms.  When David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, announced the abolition of maintenance grants and the imposition of means tested tuition fees in 1997, he justified both with reference to the increased earning power of graduates. 

The statement in the 1998 Green Paper, The Learning Age, that ‘our new funding system gives students the right to demand better quality of teaching and greater attention to their needs’ (DFEE, 1998), can be interpreted as linking tuition fees to the new quality and standards agenda (represented by the Quality Assurance Agency and the Institute for Learning and Teaching) in a way that constructs academics as inadequate and uncaring. 

Many academics do believe that approaches to teaching in higher education require revision in order to meet the intellectual and vocational needs of students more effectively.  Many have supported movements for wider access and lifelong learning and have researched or initiated a range of innovations that are student-centred and progressive. By ‘progressive’, I mean approaches and practices that strengthen the ability of all students, not just a social or intellectual elite, to become independent learners, critical thinkers and autonomous actors. The work of such academics is hampered by the apparent preference of many institutional managements for a top-down approach to innovation in learning, teaching and assessment.  So many academic managers seem to find it easier to impose changes than to engage in wide consultation and open debate. They do not seem to perceive any contradiction in advocating independence for students while curtailing the autonomy of those who are to support the development of this independence.   The result is often that the initiatives fail to become established or do not fulfil their stated aims. 

Workshop Tasks

1.     Think back to some curriculum development you were engaged in several years ago - go back to the mid-1980s if you can.  Tell each other what the main issues you were concerned with were and ask one member of the group to jot down some key phrases.

2. Now think about a very recent experience of curriculum development.  What were the issues?  Were there any particularly controversial issues?  Again, ask someone to jot down key words or phrases.

Reports Back

Group 1 remembered that, in the 1980s, the emphasis was on content and delivery.  Academics were understood to be the key practitioners in both.  Some members of the group had experienced opportunities for curriculum innovation in this period. The group perceived a strong danger that the present-day focus on generic cross-curriculum skills, the move towards published programme specifications and the subject benchmarking exercise would lead to blandness in course aims and content.  Standardisation was being externally driven and the resistance to the form it was taking was coming from the more conservative academics.  It remained to be seen what potential there was for effective opposition from more progressive higher education teachers.

Members of Group 2 had engaged in interdisciplinary curriculum development in the 1980s.  The processes had been collective and democratic but often conflictual and painful.  They traced the current emphasis on skills to the competence and capability movements of a decade ago but saw current initiatives as being very ‘top-down’.  Like Group 1, they noted that subversion  took a conservative form and that both benchmarking and programme specifications tended to encourage blandness.

The curriculum development experience of Group 3 in the 1980s had also been ‘bottom-up’ and interdisciplinary.  It had been content-driven, often by active researchers.  They questioned the value and purpose of contemporary requirements to add statements about aims and objectives to course documents.  It was more important to consider what information students wanted than to conform to initiatives from above.  Group 3 pointed out that programme specifications could discourage change and updating.

General Discussion

There was general agreement that the use of traditional subject categories for the Benchmarking panels marked a shift away from interdisciplinarity.  Despite some of the negative views of current developments that had been aired, there was a consensus that subject-based academics should get involved with forums and projects that provided spaces in which issues of learning, teaching and the curriculum could be discussed and initiatives taken.   Right at the end of the session, participants began to challenge the usefulness of terms like ‘curriculum’ and ‘good practice’, advocating closer examination of the expressions used in public debate on higher education isssues.


Barnett, R. (1992) ‘What Effects? What Outcomes?’ in Ronald Barnett Learning to Effect. Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.

DFEE, (1998), The Learning Age,

Kinman, G. and  Jones,  F. (2000),  Working in Higher Education: the Relationship between Perceptions of Change, Working Conditions and Psychological Health, Education Unlimited 13.4. 00,,3858,3985852,00.html

Mackay, L. Scott, P. and Smith, D. (1995) ‘Restructured and Differentiated? Institutional Responses to the Changing Environment of UK Higher Education’, Higher Education Management, 7/2.

Tasker, M. and Packham, D. (1994) ‘Government, Higher Education and the Industrial Ethic’, Higher Education Quarterly, 48/3, pp. 182-193.

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