Retaining the edge with course architecture optimisation

Retaining the edge with course architecture optimisation


UK universities have long enjoyed a strong international reputation and therefore suffered few consequences when their course offerings were not well-matched to student needs and expectations. This luxury, however, is quickly disappearing.

Over the last 30 years, the higher education sector in the UK has been on a path of transformation. Recent policy indicates that universities will be under more pressure than ever to offer cost-effective courses that are tailored to meet the demands of students. According to the 2016 White Paper, “the market needs to be re-oriented and regulated proportionately – with an explicit primary focus on the needs of students, to give them choices about where they want to study, as well as what and how”.[1]

In this context, pairing the structure of the course offer to the dynamic needs and expectations of students will be one of the highest strategic priorities for Vice Chancellors over the coming years. The process to achieve this is what Nous calls course architecture optimisation.

Costly legacy courses

Most universities offer a number of low-attendance courses that nonetheless incur a high cost internally. In fact, course enrolment is often a textbook example of the Eighty Twenty Rule – 80 per cent of students are enrolled in 20 per cent of the university’s courses. In large part, these courses represent a combination of duplicates, minor variations in course content required for specific degree programs, failed experiments and legacy courses.

It is costly to run a low enrolment portfolio and it carries a large set of opportunity costs.

Where resources are limited and competitors are highly motivated, the architecture of a university’s course portfolio is crucially important.

Challenging the shape of the course portfolio

A powerful way to succeed in a competitive environment is to optimise course architecture.

What do we mean by course architecture? Course architecture is about bringing a university’s strategy to life through a coherent set of courses that support the distinctive nature of what a university has to offer. It should integrate with and enhance

  • the university’s research;
  • the value proposition to students, staff and businesses; and
  • the social contract the university has with the communities within which it operates.

A finely tuned course architecture translates to a competitive advantage. For instance, universities gain an edge from deeply understanding their research strengths, and how the course portfolio can leverage off these to create a compelling and differentiated value proposition in specific areas. Similarly, in terms of connection to the commercial sector, understanding the twin drivers of demand – students interests in studying courses and industry demand for particular skills – can enable universities to be ahead of the curve and offer better value to both students and industry partners.

Optimising course architecture is often a catalyst for and enabler of rethinking how courses are delivered, further enhancing value and establishing a truly differentiated offering.

Course profitability matters too

Alongside course architecture, universities have been challenged to consider course profitability. Both the revenue and cost sides require scrutiny. High performing universities will process data based upon who is choosing what courses and why they are making those selections. They will also understand the full range of costs (and opportunity costs) of offering courses and employing certain approaches to teaching, ideally under alternative constellations.

Optimised course architecture and profitability not only contributes to a more responsive teaching portfolio, it generates surpluses that can be reinvested for further growth. For a university to get to this, however, it must respond to a number of fundamental questions.

From strategy to architecture

Course architecture optimisation is complex and inevitably involves making tough decisions. Course and student data is just one of the important pieces of information that need to be gathered and analysed. As a starting point, a university must also have a view on:

  • Educational strategy: What is the university trying to achieve? What role does the architecture play in that strategy?
  • Market position: Where does the university currently sit relative to rival institutions and where is it ideally situated? What does the course architecture of competitor universities look like?
  • Research and teaching: What is the university’s position on balancing financial sustainability and research excellence?
  • Course analytics: What courses are offered, to whom, how many and with what types of outcomes? What does it cost to offer these courses?

Analysing current course architecture in this way can help university leaders glean new insights into the way they work and where inconsistencies and gaps may exist. The analysis of course architecture will reflect back information to university leaders in new ways. In doing so, it facilitates an empowered brand of decision making.

New light on old questions

Course architecture optimisation shines a fresh light on old questions. It allows leaders to make informed decisions about how the portfolio of courses support or subtract from the educational strategy.

As the below illustrates, the analysis demonstrates which courses are high on revenue and profit contribution on the one hand; and which are high on education, research and reputational contribution on the other.

Revenue and profit contribution

Benefits beyond decision-making

The benefits of analysing course architecture extend beyond decision making. Understanding course architecture is a key element of projecting, explaining and marketing a university.

When the process is conducted with the right sorts of analytics and input from university stakeholders, the process will generate inclusive and effective ways of communicating decisions to people within the university, future students, partners and the community more broadly.

The results that demonstrate how effective this can be are already starting to emerge.

Harvesting the seeds of success

In Australia, we have already started to see the transformational impact of this work. Nous works with 35 Australian universities, many of which have embarked on optimisation of their course offers over the last 18 months.

The impact has been significant. A Group of Eight university increased their surplus from 2.5 to 6.5 per cent over the first year after optimisation. Another has begun a process to shed half its active units and refocus staff on high value areas; and yet another is on track to create surpluses large enough to increase the workforce by 20 per cent.

As the pressure builds on universities to act strategically with their resources, course architecture will be an increasingly important part of response. It sits alongside the student experience, models of pedagogy, and the structure of research as manifestations of educational and research strategy. Course architecture however, not only manifests strategy, but is an input into it too.

Few levers are available that can enable a university to increase both financially sustainability and the strength of its message to students. Course architecture optimisation is one of those.

6 key questions to ask

If you’re a leader in the higher education sector, we encourage you to consider these 6 key questions in the context of your institution:

  1. Is it sometimes necessary to make key decisions without the appropriate underpinning data and insights?
  2. Do you appear to be teaching to small student groups?
  3. Could you teach existing courses with fewer modules by eliminating close duplicates with similar learning outcomes?
  4. Is there an opportunity to use the current basket of modules across more courses to pursue revenue growth at limited additional cost?
  5. Are course structures confusing to students and lead to attrition and increased costs of student administration?
  6. Do you need to reduce the academic staff cost and thus supply of teaching labour?

If the answer to any of these questions is ‘yes’, it is worth considering a review of your course architecture. This could help you understand whether your current structure supports your strategic and operational goals, and how it compares with others in the market.

Get in touch for more information on how Nous can help.