Reforming the economics curriculum

In 2014-15 we reported on three initiatives to revise the teaching of economics, each of which was inspired to some degree by the apparent difficulty that economics had in warning of the crisis of 2007-8.1 Two years on, it seems worth reviewing progress. We had an update from the CORE project in our April issue (no.173). Below, Calum Michell2 reviews recent events at the ‘Post-Crash Economics Society’. We shall have an update from the Association of Heterodox Economists shortly.

Two years since students at Manchester University instigated a national debate on the value of economics education, the PostCrash Economics Society (PCES) has merged with Rethinking Economics,3 a wider community of 45 student groups in 15 countries, all of which presenting a concerted call for change. Supported by prominent academics and respected professional economists, and with two offices and a small staff team of RE alumni, the students are now calling for change at the national level, as well as locally.

Three such students have authored a book (with a foreword by Bank of England Chief Economist Andy Haldane) The Econocracy: the perils of leaving economics to the experts,4 setting out the concerns students have both with the way economics is used in the public arena, as well as the shortcomings of economics graduates who go on to occupy influential positions.

Key to the book’s argument is a piece of research analysing the nature of undergraduate economics education. We examined 170 modules at seven leading universities, finding that more than half of compulsory exam marks were given to a candidate’s ability to ‘operate a model’, conversely, only 8 percent of marks were given for candidates ability to evaluate i.e. asking students to make some form of independent judgment. We view this uncritical approach to learning economics as a key problem in undergraduates education.

Believing that the public do not understand economics, nor trust economists, we have begun a campaign for understandable economics at Ecnmy.org,5 providing simple explanations of economic concepts and economic news in a way that is relevant to people’s daily lives. In 2015, concerns with the state of economics were the subject of the film Boom Bust Boom,6 which combined Monty Python’s Terry Jones, Daniel Kahneman, puppetry, and members of Rethinking Economics, and was reviewed by the New York Times.7

In the UK, students have been offering an alternative understanding of how economics can be taught. With the guidance of Lord Robert Skidelsky and HaJoon Chang, we are developing two ‘Massive Open Online Courses’ (MOOCs) on ‘The Philosophy of Economics’ and ‘Unsettled Questions in Economics’. We have also influenced higher education policy, offering a submission to Lord Nicholas Stern’s review of the Research Excellence Framework, and contributing to the QAA’s Subject Benchmark Statement. Back at the local level, students continue to run engaging conferences, this year in London, Manchester, Glasgow and Paris. These attempt to create a bridge between academic economists and the public, making economic issues more understandable and expanding upon the traditional speaker-audience format.

Ultimately, change happens at the local level, as individual departments and professors implement a more open, critical and evaluative approach to studying economics. We have been part of large scale curriculum reform at Goldsmiths, Greenwich and Kingston universities and have seen smaller changes implemented at Manchester and Glasgow.

We encourage readers of this Newsletter to consider the arguments laid out in our Curriculum Reform Manifesto8 and our new book The Econocracy. Moreover we encourage readers to listen to their students’ concerns over the education they are receiving and question whether their lectures are helping form analytic, critical and reflective economists with the capacity to communicate their ideas to a variety of audiences.

Endnotes:

1. ‘New teaching for economics: the INET-CORE project’ (July, 2014. Issue no. 166. www.res.org.uk/view/art4Jul14Features.html);
‘Necessary pluralism in the economic curriculum’ (October 2014. Issue no. 167. www.res.org.uk/view/art7Oct14Features.html);
‘Economics as a pluralist, liberal education’ (January 2015. Issue no. 168. www.res.org.uk/view/art5Jan15Features.html)

2. Rethinking Economics

3. ‘The international network Rethinking Economics believes that the economics we have been studying is unfit for purpose. Our education is ahistorical, uncritical, disconnected from the realworld and gives future policymakers a narrow understanding of economic reality.’

4. Published by Manchester University Press. http://www.manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/9781526110138/

5. http://ecnmy.org/

6. https://vimeo.com/119939446

7. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/11/movies/boom-bust-boom-review.html?referrer=google_kp&_r=0

8. www.rethinkeconomics.org/get-involved/curriculum-reform

Issue no.175, October 2016, p.17

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