Letter to the editor - Diane Coyle and Simon Wren Lewis respond

Sir,

Andrew Mearman challenges our view, expressed in an earlier article in this Newsletter, that economics degrees have a vocational purpose. We think there is in fact evidence that they do. The latest figures from the Higher Education Careers Services Unit (covering 2014 destinations data) [http://www.hecsu.ac.uk/
current_projects_what_do_graduates_do.htm] report that of 4470 survey respondents who had taken economics degrees, 13.1 per cent were in further study, 8.5 per cent were combining study with (unspecified) work, and of the 54.3 per cent working full time in the UK, more than half (52.7 per cent) were in business, finance or HR. This was by a long way the most frequent category of job reported. Most of those in further study were taking masters degrees (MPhil or MSc in Economics, MBA, MSc Real Estate Finance are among the examples given). Examples of the graduate job titles cited in the report include investment banker, Government Economic Service, analyst at a financial advice company.

Therefore for a little over two-fifths of economics graduates, their degree will have been, in their minds and the minds of their employers, vocational. This is a substantially higher proportion than, for example, the proportion of psychology graduates either in further study or in jobs related to their degree; and most psychology degrees are accredited by the British Psychological Society, with a two-year core curriculum that follows its guidelines, precisely so that the vocational route is open to graduates.

The Economics Network survey confirmed that employers do look for skills they are not currently finding in economics graduates. This is one reason we too have been advocating curriculum reform. The ability to think critically about problems, more knowledge of economic history and context, and communication skills are high on employers’ wish-list (the third of these being true of employers of any graduates). It is a fine point whether these can be described as ‘vocational’ or not. However, when employers were asked to name which skills and knowledge they believed most needed to be developed further in economics degree courses, employers most frequently mentioned better application of economic theory, well ahead of other desired improvements in areas including communication skills, quantitative and data skills, economic history and cost-benefit analysis.

Of course the fact that economics degrees have a vocational purpose does not rule out some departments offering a more liberal arts approach to economics, as Andrew is suggesting. We are sure that he would agree that, if departments do go down that route, it would appropriate for all concerned if they signal that clearly to both prospective students and potential employers.

We would echo Andrew’s conclusion that a debate on the nature and purpose of economic degrees is timely. It is a debate that is under way in some departments and perhaps could usefully be extended more widely in the profession.

Diane Coyle, University of Manchester
Simon Wren-Lewis, University of Oxford

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