A pile of colourful Lego bricks.

The pros and cons of modularisation: build your own adventure?

The move towards modularisation has begun. Dr Ant Bagshaw, principal management consultant at Nous Group, considers the opportunities and challenges that this will bring to the sector. Are students ready to build their own adventure?

Opportunities of modularisation

The Government’s interim response to the Augar Report, released in January, said that England “will move towards modularisation of higher education in order to provide a truly flexible system that provides more opportunity for upskilling throughout people’s careers.”

Great news, you might think.

Full modularisation potentially offers game-changing flexibility for students. They can adjust the intensity of their learning to go faster and slower around other commitments, and access focused bitesize learning.

You might even see the advantages for providers where they can have rolling intakes. By not focusing on a single entry point in the year, they can have a more dynamic course portfolio that meets the needs of diverse students.

Moving to a modular system where students draw down funding on a per-credit basis, rather than for a year of study, will be a major change for the sector. It will require the Student Loans Company to work very differently.

But let’s assume that this is a solvable problem, and that the policy settings will be in place at sector level to enable modularisation.

What might the challenges be for institutions?

Challenges of modularisation

If we start at the beginning of the student journey, universities will need to better articulate the range of options available to students in ways which don’t overwhelm them with choice.

They’ll need to market their macro- and micro-credentials with clarity about:

  • What each is intended to achieve
  • How they connect to each other
  • How they connect to others’ provision if there is increasing credit transfer.

Student record systems and curriculum management platforms will need to be flexible enough for students to hop on and off without breaking the machinery.

The student contract and expectations will also change:

  • What does it mean for student support services if a student enrols module-by-module?
  • Do they get support between periods of registration?
  • What does it mean for student engagement and representation?

No individual question is insurmountable, but there will be multiple minor changes that need to be accommodated.

Universities will also need to reconsider what programme coherence looks like. A fully modular approach will challenge the definition of English degrees, with a focus on the collection of module learning outcomes over programme-level outcomes.

This might not be a problem, but we’ll need to understand how the quality assurance works. Most significantly, universities will need the financial models which enable flexibility to allocate resources more dynamically, and to be more responsive around delivery including timetabling.

Preparing for modularisation

There is significant, and justified, scepticism that students will opt for the full flexibility of the modularised system in large numbers.

The full-time-over-three-years mode dominates undergraduate provision, and the conception of what it is to ‘go to uni,’ despite attempts to stimulate accelerated degrees and degree apprenticeships.

While one response to the modularisation agenda is to assume that little will change, another is to ask what changes would be needed within the institution to enable a successful transition.

If the changes have no, or little, downside, then it’s likely worth building them into how the university works in the medium term to future-proof for this policy agenda. When thinking about the policies, systems, and organisational structures, can they be made more ready for flexibility?

Universities can also learn from their counterparts where modular systems are more common. The Australian system is a good example of how the modular approach can work, though no system is perfect for every stakeholder.

As here, there is a low absolute level of credit transfer, but the principle that students should be able to set the pace of their studies operates across the sector. Universities benefit from rolling intake, but students have a more limited cohort experience.

For full modularisation to work, the whole architecture of the sector – fees, funding, and regulatory settings – needs to change. Universities need to change too. The institutions that start that thinking now will be better prepared if, and when, flexibility arrives.

Dr Ant Bagshaw is a principal management consultant with Nous Group based in London. He spent two years based in Melbourne, working with Australian universities and governments.