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Modularisation at universities: What does it mean for institutions and students?

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In this edition of NousCast Shorts we speak to Nous Principal Ant Bagshaw about how universities in the UK and around the world are adapting to modularisation, including making preparations and confronting challenges. 

About NousCast Shorts

The NousCast Shorts podcast series brings you fresh thinking on some of the biggest challenges facing organisations today. Each episode of NousCast Shorts will feature a rapid-fire interview with a Nous consultant about an emerging issue in their area of expertise – in about the time it takes to have a cup of coffee. 

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.

Ari Sharp: Hello and welcome to NousCast Shorts, the podcast that brings you short and sharp insights from the team at Nous Group, an international management consultancy.

I'm your host, Ari Sharp. And today on NousCast Shorts, we're talking to Ant Bagshaw, a Nous Principal based in London who specializes in higher education and has over a decade of experience working in regulation, student engagement, academic quality assurance, and institutional governance. Lately, Ant's been thinking a lot about the future of universities and one theme that's emerged is the trend toward modularisation. So just what is modularisation? What are the opportunities and pitfalls and how does an organization set itself up for success? Let's find out

Ant Bagshaw, welcome to NousCast Shorts.

Ant Bagshaw: Hi, Ari. Good to see you.

Ari Sharp: Ant, you've been exploring the prospects for modularisation at universities in the UK and around the world. Just what is modularisation and why is it in the spotlight?

Ant Bagshaw: Well, Ari, you might think that this is a boring topic, but modularisation is really interesting, particularly here in England. The government in the skills white paper earlier this year said that it wanted to introduce modularisation for higher education. Now at the moment, most students, think about undergraduates, domestic undergraduates fund their education on a year by year basis. They take a loan from the student loan company. And what modularisation would do would allow students to access higher education in a more bite-sized way, drawing down funding on a module by module basis. So what you might call a subject in the Australian context or a course in some institutions. But really, they're a smaller unit of a year, giving them much more flexibility to flex up if they wanted to study more intensively or down if they've got caring responsibilities work and so on and giving real flexibility to the individual.

Ari Sharp: Ant, what are the key challenges when it comes to modularisation? What does the evidence show us?

Ant Bagshaw: Well, modularisation works really well in theory. We know that some systems like in Australia, it's become a norm and it's very common for students to access education in that way. And institutions have structured what they provide to allow for that. Here in England, it's much more normal for students to sign up to a traditional three-year undergraduate degree and to progress through and get very high completion rates at that level. And so, modularisation would be a real cultural change in terms of how individuals think about accessing their higher education, but also how institutions provide that to enable the flexibility. For example, credit accumulation and transfer, something that governments have been interested for a long time, some institutions are working that effectively, but I think modularisation would provide the platform for the much more transfer and movement around the system so that students can access the learning where they wanted, how they wanted when they wanted.

Ari Sharp: Ant, have you seen other universities put this into action and what does their experience tell us?

Ant Bagshaw: For universities in England, I think they should really be looking to the Australian system to see what it's like in practice. Rather than thinking about your offer in terms of a whole program, instead of thinking about a degree level unit of learning, actually thinking about how that breaks down into its components, thinking about the coherence that you've got at an individual module level and thinking how those stack together, how they fit. For example, making sure that the credit weighting fits such that they add together in a program architecture that provides the coherence for students to be able to access that learning in a modular way, rather than having to commit to the full degree.

What are the key questions? The big unknowns at the moment is how much student demand there will be. So while this is great, in theory, what we also need to do is to try and understand, because we don't know, because this approach hasn't been offered to the market so far, we don't yet know exactly how students will respond. Clearly, easing out that unknown is a really important priority for institutions to understand what the potential is. And they should absolutely be identifying ways to ask that question.

Ari Sharp: Given what you've told us about modularisation, what do you think university should do?

Ant Bagshaw: On the one hand, I've said that modularisation, we don't know what the demand is. In an institution, you've got a question which is to what extent should we act now, knowing that we're not sure what the consequences will be? Well, my response there is to say the actions you would take for the fully modularized system are good in their own right. So making sure that the program architecture is coherent, that you're telling a straightforward and efficient story to students saying, "This is how your learning can be organized. This is the way that you've got maybe not credit transfer between institutions, but within the university, allowing flexibility of pathways."

Equally, when you're thinking about those long-term investments, for example, around the student record system, making sure that the infrastructure in which you organize your learning is built for the potential of modularisation and that's work that needs to be done now or in your program of upgrades to how you think about policies, procedures, the systems to allow for modularisation and and not be caught out at some point in the future when it takes off.

Ari Sharp: Ant, it sounds like having access to good data is going to be really important to making this a success. What are the key data points that universities should be looking for?

Ant Bagshaw: There are a few key data sources that universities need access to. So the first is on student demand and understanding students' behavior around modularisation and how they will access learning, what information needs to be communicated to them, what preferences, choices, how they can access.

Within institutions, really student load management is hugely important. So actually understanding how to connect more variable demand on a term by term, semester by semester basis in order then to be able to timetable effectively, to use space, to allocate resources. Because rather than having your student population locked in for say three years, you've got much more flexibility, which means the institution needs to respond more dynamically to the ebbs and flows in student demand.

Ari Sharp: Ant, I can see that it would be a big cultural shift at a lot of institutions and the way that they think about their relationship with students. What are the changes they need to make?

Ant Bagshaw: On the one hand, the universities are often resistant to change and we'll see the downsides of modularisation. We'll see the threat to program coherence. We'll see the disruption that this will cause to learning and cohort building. Those are absolutely understandable fears around the potential for change. But on the other hand, there is huge opportunity to empower learners to say well, yes, you have agency and choice about how to structure your learning, what to choose, when. And on the institution side, taking responsibility for that program coherence is will remain, but it's putting more power in the hands of the student to build their own adventure.

Ari Sharp: Ant, you've shown us an image of what it looks like when this is done well. What's the consequence of universities that missed the boat on this?

Ant Bagshaw: That's a really great question, Ari. There's a real risk to institutions that modularisation does take off and that those institutions which stick to rigid program offerings, expecting students to sign up for the whole degree, that actually they'll just be less desirable in the marketplace. Whereas those that offer flexibility could be really well positioned to take advantage of new demand.

Ari Sharp: And we've heard a lot about universities and other organizations that are really focused on achieving their mission. How do you think modularisation can help contribute to that?

Ant Bagshaw: The universities that I speak to, they're all committed to ensuring the best possible outcomes for students. If those outcomes can be achieved through learning that is more flexible and there is every reason to believe that empowering students to make considered and informed choices about what to learn and the structure of their learning, that can enable better outcomes.

So for example, we know how successful placements are in helping students to access work later on. Now, we know that placements are particularly effective at securing good graduate outcomes. Where we enable modularisation, it enables work to fit more efficiently around learning, therefore by the time that a student has completed that award, they're better placed to access jobs and to apply that what they've learned in the workplace. So yes, there's a potential you might describe that as blurring boundaries between a university experience in the world of work, but that is the reality for so many students that are already working and actually, the modularized approach would empower them to learn more flexibly and to access the work that they need to sustain themselves.

Ari Sharp: Ant, do you see applicability for modularisation at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels?

Ant Bagshaw: I think modernization has potential at all levels of education. At the post-graduate level, because of the shorter length of awards, so typically less than a year, there's a less exciting opportunity to unbundle that and to pack it up in different ways. And there is in fact more, I think more flexibility offered by many institutions at post-graduate. Really, the opportunity is in the undergraduate space, particularly because of the way funding works on this year by year basis at the moment. And once the student loan company is able to unpack its current systems and fund on a modular basis, so sort of by credit volume, then that will really be a game changer for the sector.

Ari Sharp: And you mentioned there the financial impact on a university. What's the potential upside of getting it right in a financial sense?

Ant Bagshaw: For the universities that get modularisation right, first of all, they can operate more efficiently. So there are potential cost savings in terms of user resource, efficient use of space, but there's also huge opportunities for increased recruitment. So providing that flexibility by being a standout, in a marketplace where some institutions embrace modularisation and some don't, those that do have potential to access new markets to be able to recruit more students and ultimately to be more successful overall.

Ari Sharp: Ant Bagshaw, it sounds like there's huge opportunities for universities that can get this right. Thanks for talking to NousCast Shorts.

Ant Bagshaw: Thanks, Ari. Great stuff.

Ari Sharp: That was Ant Bagshaw, our principal at Nous Group. You can find Ant's article, The Pros and Cons of Modularisation: Build Your Own Adventure on the Nous website. You can also contact him directly by email and LinkedIn. We'll provide details in the episode notes.

Before we go, some information on us at Nous Group. For more than 20 years, Nous has offered a broad consulting capability that allows us to solve our client's most complex strategic challenges and partner with them through transformational change. We've contributed to significant agendas in the UK, Canada, and Australia, including shaping the future of higher education, digitally transforming service delivery and developing models of regulation. And since April, Nous Group includes Cubane Consulting, the power behind Uniforum. The Uniforum program provides university management with the means to manage strategically their administration and support services, leveraging the power of information sharing, learning from one another, and collaboration.

You can find out more about Nous and Cubane, meet our people, and read our insights at our website. That's all for this edition of NousCast Shorts. You can subscribe on your favorite podcast app so you don't miss an episode. And if you like what you hear, please rate and review us to help other people find it.

Thanks for listening. We'll catch you next time.

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