Undergraduate courses in construction and surveying serve a dual purpose. They must provide students with the intellectual development expected of a degree-level education, whilst also preparing them for entry to a professional workplace. As with most vocational degree courses, there is a balance to be struck between the demands of the professional world and the norms of higher education. The premise for the research presented here is that there are multiple inter-related factors that exert influence over the curriculum design process and it is misleading to consider the process in binary terms. Cultural-historical activity theory is used to examine the process as an activity system and to identify the complex inter-relationships between the various factors. The research findings are based on interviews with senior academic staff at seven English universities where construction and surveying degrees are offered. The findings identify how the curriculum design process is informed by key reference points. Inherent tensions within the process are highlighted and the implications of those tensions for both the academic identity of construction and surveying and the status of the professions are considered.