Letter to the editor - Is economics a vocational subject?

I welcome Diane Coyle's and Simon Wren-Lewis’ further engagement with the debate on the purpose(s) of economics, which is essential to address if we are serious about reforming economics curricula. I shall leave it to readers to judge whether they have proved ‘the fact that economics degrees have a vocational purpose’; but for me this is too strong a claim. Let us agree that economics has a vocational element, in two senses: leading economists often speak of their desire to effect positive change; and the subject may have qualities which make its graduates (somewhat) employable.

I should like to return to their original comments, namely that economics degrees must eschew a liberal arts approach, in favour of an emphasis on technique; and also to their suggestion that there should be some sort of warning label for economics programmes which do not do so.

Implicit in their argument seems to be an assumption that a liberal arts approach is incompatible with employability. I think this is a mischaracterisation. A recent report from the AACU (http://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/LEAP/nchems.pdf) shows that studying in institutions founded on the liberal arts equips students in ways valued by employers. It claims that 93 per cent of employers agree that ‘a candidate’s ability to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major’.

Indeed, those attributes are crucial to a liberal education. The goals of this type of education are inter alia that students should develop autonomy, analytical and critical capacity and an awareness of wider alternatives (Bridges, 1992). In principle, yes, these capacities can be achieved by studying any subject. In theory, too, it is possible for students to become educated without developing any skills; however, the most likely clash between liberal education and employability occurs when training trumps education, for example, when overemphasis on technique overrides understanding.

Employers indeed value the ability of students to apply economic theory. The question is how this is best achieved. A common (informal) complaint from GES assessors, for example, is that candidates often show prowess in high theory and technique, but are unable to think about a concrete problem. Most useful are those who can combine economic aspects of the problem with its social, political and ethical dimensions.

A liberal education aims to produce these types of people. So, if a warning label should be applied, perhaps it could be this: ‘Danger: you may become educated and employable. You will be held fully responsible.’

Andrew Mearman
University of Leeds

Reference:

Bridges D (1992). ‘Enterprise and liberal education’, Journal of Philosophy of Education, 26 (1): 91-98.

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