Letter to the editor - Elitism and the state of economics education

Sir,

Reading the April 2015 RES Newsletter, we wondered whether it was by design or accident that the articles on ‘The Rise of Elitism in the Study of Economics’ (by James Johnston and Alan Reeves), and ‘Revisiting the State of Economics Education’ (by Margaret Stevens), were printed next to each other. It seems to us that there is a strong causal link between the themes of the two articles, hinted at only tangentially in each. We seek in this article to draw out these links explicitly, whilst introducing additional elements relevant to ongoing debates about economics education.

Johnston and Reeves define elitism in socio-economic terms — regarding the type of institution where economics is taught, the type of student attending that type of institution, and thus the type of student studying economics. Yet whilst the correlation is not perfect, we would also argue there is a strong link between the type of institution where economics is taught and the type of economics being taught there. We agree with Johnston and Reeves that this is linked to pressures on academics and institutions from the REF, but we see the consequences of this extending beyond the socio-economic dimensions they highlight. This situation has profound implications for the propagation of economic ideas, given the type of policy-influencing careers economics graduates from elite institutions will often go into, as Johnston and Reeves indicate. But since this also includes becoming academics, it has direct consequences for the type of economics taught to future generations.

Reflecting concerns expressed by Stevens in her article, but also by the Post-Crash Economics Society (PCES) in an article in the January 2015 Newsletter and the response by Diane Coyle and Simon Wren-Lewis in the April Newsletter, we do not wish to create artificial divisions between orthodox/mainstream and heterodox economics, but wish to go deeper, to get a clearer sense of what economics is. An economics education includes the learning of a range of quantitative and theoretical methods, but there are also multiple threshold concepts that are fundamental to understanding what economics is and how economists think. Economics then involves the application of these tools to help understand an almost infinite number of questions affecting society.

Economics may well be ‘what economists do’ — but the critical question is, how large or small is the economist’s toolkit that we draw on in order to ‘do’ economics? These recent articles in the Newsletter focus on specific tools more than their application. The PCES article refers to Problem Based Learning as a way of taking the teaching and learning of economics forward. We agree that PBL is an excellent pedagogy for applying economic knowledge. The challenge, as we see it, it getting academics to make the necessary changes to what is taught on economics degrees, and how. PBL is but one of various means of getting students to reflect critically on the tools in that toolkit of theirs, and to decide which tool is most suitable for which job. If we are telling them only that certain theories or certain (quantitative) methods fit into the toolkit, then we are foreshortening students capacity both to understand what economics is, and how they can then seek solutions to economic problems. Indeed, if economics is delivered primarily as a degree in a limited range of economics methods, students may not even get the chance to do the latter.

But PBL is emblematic of wider constraints. First, as the PCES article makes clear, it can be difficult to implement PBL with very large degree cohorts. Why this should be a problem is understood by another feature of elite institutions - lower average academic teaching loads than non-elite institutions (we prefer this label to Johnston and Reeves' reference to the elite as 'probably higher quality' institutions and thus, by implication, the non-elite as lower quality institutions). The implication of this is simple but profound. Students attending elite institutions, typically also research intensive institutions, will be going to institutions defined as elite by one set of criteria, shaped by one set of academic staff, but will receive much of their economics education from a different set of staff, including research students and, as recent articles in the Times Higher Education suggest, other staff who are increasingly casualised. This is not to denigrate the latter group at all. It is merely to highlight the disjoint between those whose research activities defines an institution as elite, and those who deliver much of the education at those same institutions. It thus makes the point that great care is needed when talking about ‘elite’ institutions.

If what matter is the quality of economics education, an understanding of this contradiction in the definition of elite and non-elite is vital. This is because of the dominance of a limited range of tools from the economist's toolkit being utilised in much of the research conducted in the elite. If academics are expected only to teach a limited number of hours each year, it follows that there will be no institutional pressure for those academics to spend time learning other techniques to build into their teaching. Nor is it likely that there will be any institutional expectation that they reflect on their teaching practice, beyond tick-box formalities. Of course, there will be academics, even at elite research intensive institutions who, despite REF-driven institutional pressures, will still choose to bring these broader perspectives into their teaching. But there is a general lack of positive, supportive incentives for academics at the elite to do this as a matter of course.

So what are the implications of this? First, the economics taught at the elite is more likely to be theoretical and quantitative - which is not a problem, but which comes with two massive caveats. This is fine, so long as students are taught a range of theoretical methods — including qualitative as well as quantitative methods, and different perspectives on what is ‘economics’. And second, students are enabled to apply that range of knowledge to different issues.

Which brings us to the big question — what is an economics education for? Like any other discipline, it involves learning about the discipline, but higher education must also involve questioning — the basics of a discipline as well as their application and use. Moreover, we must also recognise that education is also about helping equip students for work: yes, we must say it.…employability. So what does this mean in economics? Well, for this we have the biennial Economics Network survey of employers of economics graduates to help guide us. The new survey results are now available on the EN website. The skills valued by employers include abstraction — theory matters. But it also involves analysis, understanding and interpreting and strategic thinking. If students are exposed only to a limited set of tools, or if their degrees are exercises in learning technical methods but little else, then the value of an economics education, as opposed to any other subject, is diminished.

Which brings us on to what those employers see is missing from economics graduates. These include the ability to apply what has been learned in wider contexts, creative and imaginative thinking, independence of judgement and viewpoint, cross cultural awareness, critical self-awareness and the ability to communicate clearly in writing. Moreover, communication includes being able to talk about economics. It is also about oral communication. Economics graduates should be able to enter into conversations about economics, or conversations about problems for which economics can help provide understanding and solutions. It is not simply the mastery of a set of methods.

When an economics education is reduced to the learning of a limited range of techniques, the implications are profound. This will not only fail to expose students to opportunities to develop the skills of interpretation, application and reflection, it will also fail to enable students to develop critical skills of writing and verbal communication, and of personal and social reflection. Then again, if economics is seen merely as the application of techniques, why should these skills be considered part of an economics education?

Economics education is about more than just teaching techniques. It is also about empirical understanding, enquiry, and a wide range of skills that promote employability. This is what constitutes an elite economics education.

Rob Ackrill, Nottingham Trent University
Dean Garratt, University of Warwick

From Issue no. 170, July 2015, pp.18-19

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