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Learning-centred public management education

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Purpose The purpose of this paper is to give concrete ideas to the development of MPA programmes in the light of the changing public sector. Following the introduction of ideas and practices from New Public Management, public managers face new requirements. The paper aims to deal with some of them and argues that in order to be a competent manager in the public sector today, one needs to be able to self‐develop four types of competence‐in‐practice: methodological competencies; theoretical competencies; meta‐theoretical competencies; and contextual competencies. Design methodology/approach The approach in the paper is explorative and normative. The paper explores the changes and challenges in the public sector based on the aforementioned four types of competence‐in‐practice. Following that the paper presents a normative model for curriculum design and exemplify the development and possible processes of learning‐centered MPA programmes. Findings The paper finds that learning‐centred MPA programmes are fruitful for the development of said the types of competence‐in‐practice. Practical implications With its particular focus on public sector management education this article may be relevant to curriculum developers, academics and practitioners interested in education and employability of public managers. Originality/value The paper shows that building on theories about learning, competencies, and curriculum development suggests a processual model for curriculum development that can inspire faculty members to develop learning‐centred MPA programmes where focus is learning and competence development.
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International Journal of Public Sector Management
Emerald Article: Learning-centred public management education
Claus Nygaard, Pia Bramming
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To cite this document: Claus Nygaard, Pia Bramming, (2008),"Learning-centred public management education", International Journal
of Public Sector Management, Vol. 21 Iss: 4 pp. 400 - 416
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Learning-centred public
management education
Claus Nygaard
Copenhagen Business School, Frederiksberg, Denmark, and
Pia Bramming
National Research Centre for the Working Environment, Copenhagen, Denmark
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to give concrete ideas to the development of MPA
programmes in the light of the changing public sector. Following the introduction of ideas and
practices from New Public Management, public managers face new requirements. The paper aims to
deal with some of them and argues that in order to be a competent manager in the public sector today,
one needs to be able to self-develop four types of competence-in-practice: methodological competencies;
theoretical competencies; meta-theoretical competencies; and contextual competencies.
Design methodology/approach The approach in the paper is explorative and normative. The
paper explores the changes and challenges in the public sector based on the aforementioned four types
of competence-in-practice. Following that the paper presents a normative model for curriculum design
and exemplify the development and possible processes of learning-centered MPA programmes.
Findings The paper finds that learning-centred MPA programmes are fruitful for the development
of said the types of competence-in-practice.
Practical implications With its particular focus on public sector management education this
article may be relevant to curriculum developers, academics and practitioners interested in education
and employability of public managers.
Originality/value The paper shows that building on theories about learning, competencies, and
curriculum development suggests a processual model for curriculum development that can inspire
faculty members to develop learning-centred MPA programmes where focus is learning and
competence development.
Keywords Curriculum development, Learning processes, Public sector organizations,
Master of business administration
Paper type Research paper
Higher education institutions (HEIs) offering MPA programmes face challenges as the
conditions for public services are changing together with the development of the public
sector. Such challenges have an impact on the competencies of MPA graduates, and as
a consequence also the content, process and output of the curriculum. In this article we
deal with these challenges for HEIs. Our overarching argument is that in order for
MPA programmes to help MPA students develop competencies that are of use in their
contextualised practice (what we shall label competence-in-practice) MPA programmes
need to develop a curriculum that is learning-centred. The thread running through the
article thus mirrors a focus on the relation between competence development and
curriculum development in particular.
The article has five main sections. Section one deals with the changes of the public
sector. We discuss the requirements facing public managers and HEIs offering MPA
programmes as consequences of New Public Management. This leads to section two,
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
International Journal of Public Sector
Vol. 21 No. 4, 2008
pp. 400-416
q Emerald Group Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/09513550810880269
where we formulate a competence profile for MPA graduates consisting of four
different types of competence-in-practice, which we argue public managers need to be
able to self-develop. Section three is devoted to a discussion of different
conceptualisations of curriculum, which leads to a more detailed description of the
learning-centred curriculum. It supports the development of the learning-centred MPA
programmes, which we see as a fruitful way to help MPA graduates in their
competence development. Section four introduces a model for curriculum development,
which can help to develop a curriculum, which is more learning-centred. Finally,
section five shows examples of what a learning-centred curriculum may look like in
Before we go to section one, we shall say that this article is not written to give exact
answers or present normative implications in relation to neither competence
development nor curriculum development. It is written to inspire curriculum
developers, academics and practitioners interested in education and employability of
public managers to address the development and facilitation of MPA programmes with
an explicit focus on learning. We also wish to note that calling our approach
“learning-centred” does not imply that other approaches are not concerned with
learning. To do so would be rather inappropriate. We use the term “learning-centred”
to stress learning as opposed to teaching when dealing with curriculum development.
Doing so, we shall argue, leads to a more holistic curriculum development process,
where the focus is on both learning processes and learning outcomes of students. We
believe from experience that learning-centred curricula is inspiring and rewarding
for both faculty and students, and seem to give more competent graduates.
Section one: changes and challenges in the public sector
To begin with we shall look at the main characteristics and trends of the public sector
as we see them today. In our definition the public sector comprises all public
authorities at central/federal state-level, regional/provincial county level, and local
municipal levels. We talk about civil servants (to whom specific regulations apply) as
well as public employees.
The last two decades in particular have shown radical changes in the public sector,
which have gone hand in hand with high rates of changes in markets, sectors,
institutions and technologies as well as substantial changes in intra- and inter-firm
relations in the societies at large (Qvortrup, 2006). The concept of new public
Management (NPM) (Hood, 1991, 1994) has emerged within the last two decades, and
according to Greve (2002) it is being institutionalised in at least six different forms:
(1) NPM as idea and tendency.
(2) NPM as global reform movement.
(3) NPM as management tools.
(4) NPM as policy/governance.
(5) NPM as contract theory.
(6) NPM as discourse.
It is interesting that these six different forms of NPM are integrated and appear side by
side in multiple forms. When discourses change in the public sector, new role models
and best practices are institutionalised. Governance changes, new management tools
become fashion, and ideas and tendencies evolve from private to public sectors. Overall
NPM has changed policies and practices within fields as diverse as education (Helgøy
and Homme, 2006); higher education (Eckel, 2007); health care (Laurell and Arellano,
1996); prison services (Nisar, 2007); social services (Ahmad and Broussine, 2003);
transportation (Lawther, 2000), municipalities (Sta
hlberg, 1998; Hagen and Sørensen,
1998) and government agencies (Raffnsøe, 2004; Sand, 2004) to name a few. The public
sector at large has become increasingly market-driven over the last decades (Rusaw,
2007). In a recent article, Perry (2007) argues about new public service:
it is heterogeneous;
its rules are embedded in new governance structures and tied to market forces;
its flexibilities create temporary attachments which may break down bonds
among citizens and public servants.
As governments have experienced greater exposure to fluctuations in market
economies, an increasingly dynamic product and labour market for public managers
have been created (Mastracci and Thompson, 2007). Keywords of the competitive
knowledge society are “flexibility”, “innovation” and “creativity” (Florida, 2005). As
Drucker (1993) puts it, productivity is increased by expanding workers’ control at the
workplace, thereby letting the competitive strategy rely on further knowledge creation
and continuous learning at the individual and collective level. Such widening of span of
control has also been the case with public managers.
Before NPM, the good public manager was well trained to apply rules, give policy
advice, and in general provide expert knowledge within a limited field, say transport
economics. They would then be educated in law, political science, or economics. The
job was focused and closely linked to an administrative domain. One could more or less
stick to well-known rules, and use well known methods in pursuit of regular solutions.
Today, public sector activities have become more interconnected, largely as a
consequence of NPM’s mantra “more for less” and the general accompanying
downsizing within the public sector. It means that the modern public manager needs to
be multi-skilled, needs to be able to manage multiple agendas, develop networks,
engage in teamwork, be a project manager, and overall apply the best possible mix of
competencies to reach the clearly defined often contractually set outcomes. Public
management has become closely linked to a so-called market domain where flexibility
and stakeholder management are becoming increasingly more important. With NPM
the public institution has become a strategic organisation.
As Pedersen and Hartley (this volume) note, the changing context of public
leadership and management points towards current reforms beyond NPM where focus
is on networked governance. Thereby the public institution has become an open,
flexible and organic mix of intra- and interorganisational relations, where public
service is a complex product of both inputs and outputs from multiple stakeholders.
As a consequence of NPM and beyond, public managers now face requirements for
continuous learning at both the individual and the organisational level (London and
Mone, 1999; London and Smither, 1999). The simultaneous demand on public
managers of increasing self-management and continuous learning creates an ongoing
demand self-initiated and managed learning. It is crucial that public managers are able
to self-produce and self-develop their own knowledge and are able to further
contextualise their knowledge (Nygaard and Andersen, 2005; Nygaard et al., 2006).
They need to be able to transfer their knowledge and competencies between multiple
contexts in order to raise their employability (Ball, 1986; Bridges, 1993; Harvey and
Knight, 1996). To be capable of doing this, they need to possess higher-order thinking
skills (analysis, synthesis, and reflection) (Lewis and Smith, 1993), because the focus of
higher order thinking is to reflect on the contextuality of skills, knowledge and
competencies. Gibbons et al. (1994) expressed a requirement for socially robust
knowledge, called “mode 2 knowledge”. It is argued to be a consequence of
globalisation, innovation and social change. Mode 2 knowledge is characterised by five
(1) It is generated within a context of application.
(2) It is transdisciplinary.
(3) It is heterogeneous.
(4) It is highly reflexive.
(5) It leads to the emergence of novel forms of quality control.
The obvious conclusion to these arguments and characteristics is that knowledge
production and competence development are socially embedded endeavours bound to
the development of society at large. Changes towards new forms of governance,
competition and knowledge creation challenge HEIs offering MPA programmes,
because it calls for the development of curricula which facilitate MPA graduates’
self-development of competencies that enable them to face the changing challenges of
the public sector. In the next section we look closer at the competence profile of MPA
graduates as a consequence of NPM, before we present a model for curriculum
development of learning-centred MPA programmes.
Section two: competence profile of MPA graduates
In the light of NPM (Hood, 1991), “networked governance” (Pedersen and Hartley,
2008), the “new public service” (Perry, 2007), and the “knowledge society” (Drucker,
1993), we define the competence profile of MPA graduates as follows:
(1) MPA graduates need to be able to solve contextually bound problems and
challenges in ways justified by relevant peers as being competent.
(2) MPA graduates need to develop four types of competence-in-practice:
methodological competence-in-practice;
theoretical competence-in-practice;
meta-theoretical competence-in-practice; and
contextual competence-in-practice.
We use the term competence-in-practice (Bramming, 2001) in the proposed competence
profile. Competence-in-practice mirrors our understanding of competence as
phenomenon. To us competence is bound to both person and the contextualised
relations between persons. Competence includes qualifications, appropriate values, and
attitudes. Competence is both person-related and job-related and it is expressed as the
ability to act in an efficient and effective way. To be competent is: to apply
qualifications (knowledge and skills) to solve tasks at hand in ways, which are justified
as being competent by relevant peers (Nygaard et al., 2006). In order to be competent
one thus needs to solve tasks both technically (doing what needs to be done) and
institutionally (doing it in a legitimate way). Being competent refers to doing the right
thing in the right way seen from the point of view of one’s peers. To be
competent-in-practice is thus threefold:
(1) To possess the competence to solve a problem in practice.
(2) To be able to apply one’s competence and contextual knowledge.
(3) To be positively justified by relevant peers in the context in which one is
Competence-in-practice is about knowing what to do, having the right qualifications
(knowledge and skills), being able to read the contextual “game”, the rules, norms,
values, and to be able to enact and react in ways which are positively justified by ones
peers. To talk about competence-in-practice in relation to MPA graduates is to focus on
the contextual embeddedness of MPA graduates and seriously link that to the
curriculum development and the study and learning methods of the MPA programme.
In our competence profile we argued for four types of competence-in-practice
required of MPA graduates. To us it is the role of the MPA programme to enable MPA
graduates to self-develop these. Let us sketch the different types of
Methodological competence-in-practice
It is required of MPA graduates that they can use and synthesize different research
methods based on an analysis of the content of application. They need to know a range
of research methods and be able to choose the appropriate or create a tailor-fit
method when using particular theories or models to analyse data. To possess
methodological competence-in-practice thus implies that the MPA graduate has gained
experience with the use of research methods in different contexts, and is able to chose
and apply such research methods in ways that are positively justified by relevant
peers. Having deep academic knowledge of methodological issues does not necessarily
lead to a methodological competence-in-practice. Neither does getting a good grade at
the university.
Theoretical competence-in-practice
To possess a theoretical competence-in-practice is to be able to make competent use of
models and theories relevant to the problem at hand. The MPA graduate must know all
relevant areas of the subject in question. Know which theories and models constitute
the core body of knowledge, and be able to choose and use theories and models for
analysis of contextual data and problem solving in a way that is positively justified by
relevant peers as being competent. Theoretical competence-in-practice includes that
the MPA graduate is experienced in using different theories and knows how to reason
within the framework of the theories. It also includes knowing how theories can be
developed into models that can be used to create solutions for contextually bound
problems and issues. The MPA graduate knows how to use different theories and
models depending on the current situation and the people involved.
Meta-theoretical competence-in-practice
To possess meta-theoretical competence-in-practice is to be able to make a competent
choice between models, theories and research methods dependent on the problem and
context at hand. By competent choice we mean a well-qualified choice, where the
philosophy behind the chosen mix of models, theories and research methods is judged
and held up against an expert analysis of the practical context. Meta-theoretical
competence-in-practice is bound to philosophy of science, here expressed as ontological
choices and epistemological consequences. To possess a meta-theoretical
competence-in-practice the MPA graduate has to know how and why a certain
theory calls for a certain research methodology, which further enable and constrain
certain types of data collection and data analysis as well as it effects our conclusions in
certain ways. Meta-theoretical competence-in-practice is present when the MPA
graduate is able to make such choices in ways, which are justified by relevant peers as
being competent.
Contextual competence-in-practice
To possess a contextual competence-in-practice is to be able to make a competent
analysis of contextually bound empirical practice. It requires that the MPA graduate is
able to apply the string of theories, models, and research methods to the investigation
in a given context in a way that is positively justified as being competent by relevant
peers. Contextual competence-in-practice underpins the other three types of
competence-in-practice. In that way methodological-, theoretical-, and
meta-theoretical competence-in-practice are not absolute parameters, they are highly
context dependent. This is why we can find ourselves face situations in which we are
justified as competent and obviously similar situations in which we are not. This is
why different peer groups can justify competence-in-practice in different ways.
MPA programmes should create public managers able to make a competent
analysis of contextually bound empirical practice. This is possible if one is able to
apply the string of theories, models, and research methods to the investigation in a
given context in a way that is seen upon as being competent by relevant peers. Figure 1
sums up the competence-map, which we think should be required of MPA
graduates/public managers.
The key question is of course how to develop a MPA curriculum that enables
development of these types of competence-in-practice based on mode 2 knowledge. In
our view this can be done if the curriculum is learning-centred. In the next section we
further define the concept of a learning-centred MPA programme.
Section three: defining the learning-centred curriculum
In this section we take a closer look at the concept of “learning-centred curriculum”.
What do we mean by that? What exactly characterises a learning-centred MPA
programme? Consulting the field of curriculum theory, it becomes clear that there is no
uniform definition of the terms “curriculum” and “curriculum development”. One of the
first to make a typology of different types of curricula was Eisner (1965). He presents
four types, which are described in detail in Table I. He devised this typology in relation
to elementary scools, which is why the fourth heading is called “school curriculum”.
We have kept his original terms, although to us, school curriculum would mean
university curriculum.
Course curriculum
The narrowest view on curriculum is the course curriculum. Here the faculty members
develop a course curriculum with a focus on “their own” course only. It could be a
course in accounting, public law, communication, etc. Their course curriculum is seen
as a complete and closed entity addressed to the students who follow their course. Here
each course is an isolated entity, and the students may well find themselves engaging
in time competing activities where the different courses balkanise each other. Often
this kind of curriculum development has a strong focus on the syllabus. Based on
Figure 1.
The competence-map of
MPA graduates/public
Course curriculum
curriculum Academic curriculum School curriculum
The content,
organization and
evaluation planned by
the teacher in
connection to running
the course
Activities planned
within a particular
discipline, such as
finance, organization,
Entire array of
activities that constitute
the course offerings of a
school. The academic
curriculum is made up
from a range of
subject-matter curricula
The ends for which the
school is responsible.
All activities sanctioned
by the school, and not
course-based or
credit-based activities.
Includes extra curricula
such as sport, culture,
and social life not
directly tied to an
academic course
Table I.
Four types of curricula
and their characteristics
experience it is our impression that the majority of courses developed within HE falls
into the category of course curriculum.
Subject-matter curriculum
A broader view on curriculum is the subject-matter curriculum. Here the faculty
members focus on a cluster of courses and activities within a broader subject, which
could be political economy, organisation theory, public finance, etc. Each cluster then
has a subset of courses all addressing learning activities that integrate and add up to
the broader subject matter. In this view courses are not isolated entities, but a network
of academic activities adding up to a broader and more integrated competence profile.
All faculty members know the umbrella of courses within their subject-matter
curriculum and they can address learning points and learning activities from other
courses during their own course. In that way the learning process is not left to the
students alone, but is facilitated and guided in a focused way by a larger group of
faculty members. Based on experience it is our impression that this kind of curriculum
development takes place in HE but to a lesser degree than course curriculum
Academic curriculum
A yet broader view on curriculum is the academic curriculum where all course
offerings and subject matters that make up the study programme in question are
integrated and developed. This is where the entire study programme is developed as an
integrated entity, and where all learning activities that take place within the different
courses and subject matters are thought together in an overall competence profile. All
faculty members relate their courses to the overall aim of the study programme, and
they are able to discuss the role played by their course in relation to the other courses
within different subject matters. When curriculum is thought as an academic
curriculum, the learning process of students is again facilitated and guided to a larger
extend that was the case with the subject-matter curriculum and the course curriculum.
Based on experience it is our impression that only a fraction of the curriculum
development taking place at HEI’s is seen as academic curriculum. This may be due to
the fact that it opens up for a far more complex, time consuming and expensive
curriculum development process.
School curriculum
The broadest view on curriculum is the school curriculum. It includes what we today
label extra curricular activities such as culture, sport, social life, and alumni activities
that plays an indirect and more implicit role for students’ learning processes, but
nevertheless are important drivers for the competence development of students. It is
where the life and identity of students are seen as important integrators for the
learning process, and therefore these extra curricular activities are taken into
consideration when the curriculum is developed. Based on experience it is our
impression that extra curricular aspects are finding their way into HEI’s at a moderate
pace, although it is seldom to see curriculum development processes themselves
arranged from the point of view of school curriculum. It seems like we have situations
in which extra curricular activities are found important, but the curriculum is still seen
as course curriculum.
In our view, it is important to distinguish between these four types when discussing
curriculum development in practice, since they addresses different levels of decision
making at HEI’s (Nygaard and Andersen, 2005). Furthermore they are all an integrated
part of the learning process of students and cannot be seen as isolated curricula. In our
view, the learning-centered curriculum spans all four types of curricula and not only
the course curriculum. The question is then, how one decides what is to be included in
the curriculum itself.
If we take a step further into the research on curriculum development and link that
to ideas about learning and competence development, it seems to fall into two broad
streams (which again submerge into several sub streams):
(1) A content-stream.
(2) A process-stream.
The content-stream focuses on curriculum as a syllabus or guide for teaching. The
content-stream is based on a decontextual conceptualisation of learning (Nygaard and
Andersen, 2005), which is apparent when the aim of the curriculum development
processes is to define the syllabus. With its focus on course reading lists, it seems like
finding the right course book equals educating competent students. The main
functions become design, development, implementation and evaluation of the
curriculum. This can be done as a rational process, because the syllabus itself is at the
centre of the process. Once it is designed on an overall level, further assignments can be
developed and implemented. The evaluation itself is a matter of measuring the ways in
which the syllabus and assignments fits together. The content-stream pretty much
looks like the course curriculum defined previously.
The process-stream focuses on curriculum as a designed program of learning. It is
based on a contextual conceptualisation of learning (Nygaard and Andersen, 2005),
which is apparent when the aim of the curriculum is to establish a range of activities
and methods that may lead to the facilitation of student learning. The main functions
become facilitation, coordination, supervision and evaluation. Moving away from
words like design, development and implementation is not to say that there is no
design, development and implementation within the process-stream. It is to show that
the focus is different here. The process is iterative and ongoing rather than rational,
where the curriculum develops over time (along with the learning process of students).
The view is that the curriculum is designed and developed through a process of
facilitation and coordination, and that the implementation phase is one of facilitation,
coordination and supervision, and that evaluation is done as an ongoing process as
well. Table II sums up the key aspects of the two broad streams in curriculum
We follow the process-stream and define curriculum as a learning-centred action
plan with students’ learning processes as its nexus. This is in contrast to the traditional
content- and input-based approach to curriculum development, where the major focus
is on the content of the syllabus. In our view, teaching itself does not automatically
generate learning. Therefore learning is central and teaching is peripheral. Learning is
a complex process of linking existing knowledge with new knowledge in meaningful
ways (Hermansen, 2005; Nygaard et al., 2006). It is a process, which is experience based
and contextually bound, hence a personal matter (although embedded in ongoing
systems of social relations). Therefore aspects like facilitation, coordination,
supervision and evaluation becomes central in learning-centred MPA programmes.
The learning-centred curriculum requires that learning itself is seen as the central
pedagogical concept. Within this paradigm curriculum development is not about
delivering academic content to students, but about facilitating learning processes that
closely tie together students’ practical experiences and the academic content. In that
way it is possible to develop competence-in-practice. The central pedagogical question
is not “what to learn”, but “how to learn”. No learning skill works for every person in
every situation. Therefore the underlying pedagogical concept must enable students to
learn what they know, what they do not know, and how they can improve their
Furthermore a learning-centred means that graduates are empowered to “learn to
learn”. This becomes a specific aim of the curriculum, and it requires an enquiry-based
approach to learning such as case based learning (Mauffette-Leenders et al., 1997;
Erskine et al., 1998), problem based learning (Fogarty, 1998; Dean et al., 2002),
project-based learning (DeFillipi, 2001), or research-based learning (Olsen and
Pedersen, 2003). They are all fruitful alternatives to didactic-teaching as they force
students to make educated links between their own experiences and the academic
content. It leads to the aforementioned process of action, reflection, and learning.
Ideally it helps student develop competence-in-practice.
We can then define the learning-centred MPA programme as: a programme that is
output driven and focus on the learning process of students, sees learning also as a
pedagogical concept and focus explicitly on facilitation, coordination, supervision and
evaluation. We use the next section to suggest how the development of a
learning-centred curriculum can be approached.
Section four: developing the learning-centred curr iculum
When the MPA curriculum is developed from a process-perspective (contrary to a
content-perspective) the key focus is moved from the syllabus to other curricular
aspects and activities. Figure 2 shows four interrelated aspects, which may drive the
curriculum development process (Andersen et al., 2003). It is important that these
aspects are aligned in the curriculum.
Content-stream Process-stream
Curriculum Syllabus/guide for teaching Learning-centred action plan
Conceptualisation of learning Decontextual learning Contextual learning
Orientation Input orientation Output orientation
Main focus points Course reading
Activities and methods
facilitating student learning
Main functions Design, development,
implementation and evaluation
Facilitation, coordination,
supervision and evaluation
Table II.
Two broad streams
within the curriculum
It is important for us to stress that Figure 2 does not present a four-step rational model
for curriculum development. It is an integrative model that is drawn to inspire
curriculum developers to discuss more than content and process and thereby move
away from the course curriculum towards the school curriculum (as presented in
section three of this article). We shall briefly look at these four aspects guiding
curriculum development.
Perception of future professional practice
The guiding aspect of curriculum development is the perception of the future
professional practice of MPA graduates. It has consequences for the content and
process, the pedagogical principles and the competence-profile of the MPA
programme. It is important that the future practice of MPA graduates is perceived
in close relation to the development of the public sector (as pointed at in section one and
two of this article). It is natural to include external stakeholders such as members of
public sector institutions, members of the private sector, previous graduates (alumni
organisations), members of advisory board and other organisations in this process. A
natural step in the curriculum development process would be to make focus group
interviews with these external stakeholders to get input to ways in which the future
practice of MPA graduates can be perceived. From the HEI community teachers,
examiners, researchers, and course-coordinators are obvious internal stakeholders in
this part of the curriculum development process.
Figure 2.
Four interrelated aspects
guiding curriculum
Formulation of competency-profile
The next aspects regard the kind of competencies MPA graduates need to have, to be
employable and work professionally in the public sector. In section two of this article
we argued for four types of competence-in-practice:
(1) Methodological competence-in-practice.
(2) Theoretical competence-in-practice.
(3) Meta-theoretical competence-in-practice.
(4) Contextual competence-in-practice.
Although we believe that they are critical for professional managers in the public
sector in the future, it may well be that different MPA programmes call for different
competencies. Each HEI need to make their own competence-profile for their MPA
programme in a process with the range of internal and external stakeholders
mentioned above. The competence-profile has implications for the content and
processes of the MPA programme, just as it has implications for the pedagogical
principles chosen.
Choosing the pedagogical principles
The third aspect regards the pedagogical principles of the MPA programme. Such
principles are first and foremost guided by the learning philosophy behind the MPA
programme and by its competence-profile. In our example the pedagogical principles
will be guided by the principle of contextual learning and the need to develop the four
mentioned types of competencies. It leads to a pedagogy based on
action-reflection-learning. We will come back to the implications of this in a moment.
Choosing the content and process
The fourth aspect regards the content and processes of the curriculum. We would like
to stress that there is an important point in keeping the content and process as the final
step. Usually content-driven curriculum development processes start and finish with
the formulation of the syllabus. Taking an alternative approach the task is to link the
competence-profile with the types of developed competencies, the pedagogical tools,
the educational methods and the assessment practices. When that is done, it may be
discussed what content and processes suit the MPA programme. This is where Tables I
and II of this article are brought into the curriculum development process.
Having come this far, we shall end the article with an example of what a
learning-centred MPA programme could look like.
Section five: example: the learning centred MPA curriculum in practice
The learning-centred MPA curriculum is output driven and focuses on the learning
process of students. It means that the perceived future professional practice and the
competence-profile of MPA graduates are embedded in the curriculum. Furthermore it
builds on the conception that people learn from experience when they are involved in
solving problems (Davies and Easterby-Smith, 1984; Burgoyne and Hodgson, 1983). It
implies that problems need to be close to the real life experience of students, wherefore
various forms of case studies become central pedagogical tools. By case studies we
think of real life cases close to, or drawn from, the everyday life of MPA students,
rather than prewritten desk top cases or Harvard decision cases. It acknowledges that
the learning processes of students are different, and that teachers and supervisors play
different roles to different students based on student’s individual learning processes.
Hence we talk about teachers and supervisors as facilitators of learning processes
rather than as traditional teachers and supervisors. Furthermore it builds on the
conception of competence-in-practice (Bramming, 2001). It means that competence has
to be judged in relation to practice, which is why MPA students have to work with real
life business cases and solve problems from their own professional practice.
Figure 3 shows the core of the MPA curriculum. The central element is the real life
business case, which is formulated on the basis of the perception of future professional
practice of the MPA graduate. It could also be a real life business case formulated by
the MPA student based on his/her current professional practice. When MPA students
work with their business case, they read academic literature, consult theories, use
methodologies, argue about their philosophy of science, so on and so forth, just as
would be the case in the traditional syllabus-driven curriculum. The difference is that
in the process-perspective the syllabus is flexible and linked to the individual MPA
student and to the problem at hand. MPA students are trained to take part in at least
three discourses when they solve business cases:
(1) Professional discourse.
(2) Political discourse.
(3) Economic discourse.
Professional discourse
The professional discourse is all about solving the problem in such a way that it would
be judged as being competent by members of the professional context in which the
MPA student is embedded. Here the MPA students will have to bring their four types
of competence-in-practice into play (methodological, theoretical, meta-theoretical,
Figure 3.
The MPA curriculum
Political discourse
Public management takes place in highly political contexts. The political discourse is
about solving problems in such ways that the decisions following the solutions are
implemented successfully in the political context. Here the MPA students will also
have to bring their four types of competence-in-practice into play.
Economic discourse
New public management is about efficiency and effectiveness. The market-driven
public sector calls for an economic discourse. It is all about knowing the economic
consequences of the proposed solutions, and understanding also the political and
professional aspects of making certain economic decisions. Here the MPA students will
have to bring their four types of competence-in-practice into play too.
In the traditional content-driven curriculum the teacher has decided what books to
read when and which assignments to solve where. This is not the case here. The
learning-centred MPA curriculum is driven by real life business cases where
competencies and discourses constantly meet during lectures, exercises, project work
(or whatever pedagogical methods are used in the curriculum). Lectures then are not
traditional lectures, where teachers lecture in a textbook. Lectures are there to facilitate
a positive movement in students learning processes. It requires of the teacher that
he/she does not repeat a textbook. Instead it is required of the teacher to put the central
themes into perspective by giving concrete examples of professional, political and
economic discourses in the real life business cases and showing how different theories
and methodologies link to these discourses. The same requirements could well be put
on the MPA students. It is also required that students are engaged in a debate based on
their own work with the cases prior to the lecture, and with situations from their own
work-life in which the various discourses are in play. The debate may take its outset in
e-learning assignments, in a real life situation, or in matters from a textbook. Such
thematic debates serve to help students link their existing knowledge with new
knowledge in such a way that it gives new meaning.
From this brief characterisation of the learning-centred MPA curriculum follows
that the traditional theoretical disciplines guiding the MPA curriculum are
dissolved. The course- and subject matter curricula are not present in their
traditional forms. It does not mean, however, that the learning-centred MPA
curriculum cannot have a course in say political economy. What it means though is
that the course on is not taught as a mono-disciplinary course where the technical
aspects of economic calculations are isolated. Political economy is a part of the
economic discourse, the political discourse and professional discourse at the same
time, and it calls for theoretical competence-in-practice, methodological
competence-in-practice, meta-theoretical competence-in-practice, and contextual
competence-in-practice if you have to be judged as a competent public manager
taking part in economic restructuring of the new public sector. Therefore the
learning-centred MPA curriculum is interdisciplinary in nature and links together
the four mentioned types of competence with the three mentioned types of
discourse. It is based on the premises that anchoring the learning process of
students in real-life experiences within a context, aids their learning through action,
reflection and re-conceptualisation (Scho
n, 1983).
Our main arguments have been the following: to have a high employability MPA
graduates need to be able to self-develop four types of competence-in-practice:
(1) Methodological competence-in-practice.
(2) Theoretical competence-in-practice.
(3) Meta-theoretical competence-in-practice.
(4) Contextual competence-in-practice.
Furthermore they need to be able master three types of discourse:
(1) Professional discourse.
(2) Political discourse.
(3) Economic discourse.
We have argued that a learning-centred curriculum is a fruitful and plausible way to
secure this competence development. Learning-centred MPA programmes see the
curriculum as a learning-centred action plan that unfolds while the MPA students are
learning. The benefit of this approach is that the competence development of MPA
students’ takes place as an action-reflection-learning process where theory and practice
is interlinked through a case based pedagogy. By this we believe that MPA students
learn to solve real life problems and at the same time learn to reflect their own learning
process. They “learn to learn” so to speak. It has not been our intention to cover all
possible aspects of the learning-centred MPA curriculum, but to sketch some of the
most important aspects underlying its philosophy. We thereby hope that the article has
inspired others to work with the development of learning-centred MPA programmes.
We believe that it will better the employability and the competencies of MPA
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About the authors
Claus Nygaard is Associate Professor in economic sociology at Department of Organization and
Industrial Sociology, and senior advisor at CBS Learning Lab both departments at
Copenhagen Business School. He holds a PhD in Business Administration from Copenhagen
Business School. He has worked with national and international curriculum development in
theory and practice for more than five years. Claus Nygaard is the corresponding author and can
be contacted at:
Pia Bramming is associate professor and senior researcher in HRM at the National Research
Centre for the Working Environment in Copenhagen. She holds a PhD in Business
Administration from Copenhagen Business School. She has worked with HR-strategies,
competence development and curriculum development for more than ten years.
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