Reaching out to schools

Rising numbers of students are studying economics at undergraduate level. Looking at who studies economics, however, there are some concerns about the diversity of the student body. This review of the problem and introduction to some recent initiatives comes from Sarah Smith.1

The first concern is the persistent gender gap in undergraduate economics. Women make up 57 per cent of all undergraduate students in the UK but only 33 per cent of those studying economics, including economics with other subjects. Looking at students just studying economics, the proportion is smaller (29 per cent). Fewer women study economics than study maths (37 per cent), statistics (42 per cent), chemistry (42 per cent), medicine (55 per cent) and biology (60 per cent). There is also no upward trend in this proportion.

A second concern is the extent to which undergraduate economics students come from state schools compared to private schools. One-quarter of economics students are privately educated, compared to 10 per cent of all undergraduates.

The table below shows that part of the explanation is that girls and state-school students are less likely to be offered economics at school. But, they are also less likely to study the subject even when it is available. This suggests that economics lacks appeal — and one possibility is that the unappealing view of economics is based on a narrow (and dry) perception of economics and economists. In a recent ING-Economics Network survey members of the public were more likely to think that economics is male-oriented (32 per cent) rather than female-oriented (1 per cent). Asking a group of year 11 and 12 students to say what economics is about in three words (responses in the figure), and the dominant word is money.

The other most common ones are ‘economy’ and ‘supply and demand’. Students do mention ‘choice’, but there is little mention of human behaviour or some of the big issues that economics deals with. Offering a broader, more attractive, view of economics may be one way to change who studies it.

Growing awareness of these issues has led individual academics and economics departments to organise talks and events for school students and their teachers. Some of these have been targeted at female students — Victoria Bateman organises an annual ‘Women in Economics’ day at Cambridge University, Marina della Giusta (University of Reading) spoke at the annual conference of the Girls’ School Association and a recent ‘Women in Economics’ event was held at the University of Manchester. Other events, such as the ‘Discover Economics’ day organised by the University of Bristol as part of the annual Festival of Economics, have been open to all.

Two of the recent events are described in more detail below. The aim is to provide insight into what an event might look like and some idea of the type of activities. Reaching out to schools can be challenging. It takes time — not only the organisation of the event, but also getting schools to engage. Phone calls work better than emails and personal contacts (as well as persistence) really help. Private schools are more responsive than state schools, so more effort is required to get a diverse audience. Bigger events need to be planned well in advance — schools need to schedule and plan for the event and internal approval processes may need to allow for at least six months. But the experience from those who have run the events is that they are very rewarding. They are also vital for engaging students who may not be able to study economics at school and to offer a different — and more diverse — view of the discipline.

University of Bristol, Discover Economics outreach event
Sarah Smith, Steve Proud, Babak Somekh2, and Ashley Lait3

Bristol’s annual Festival of Economics, curated by Diane Coyle, engages members of the public in economics through a series of panel discussions and talks. For the past four years, the Economics Department at the University has organised a schools event as part of the Festival, challenging teams of students studying A level economics to solve a real-life problem — encouraging healthy eating in schools, tackling congestion — using standard and non-standard economic tools. This year, we decided to widen the scale and put on a day of activities running from 9.30 - 3.30 with the aim of introducing students, including those not currently studying economics, to the scope of the subject.

The day encompassed a number of different sessions — including an interactive game, a meet an economist session, a lunchtime panel discussion and ending with the schools challenge. We worked hard to engage local schools, through emails, phone calls and personal contacts and the Economics Network helped administer the event. In the end, 108 students from 10 schools attended, half of which were state schools. Students were aged between 15 and 17, and just under half were female. We received some funding for the event from the ESRC and from the University of Bristol widening participation fund. This helped to cover the cost of lunch and other refreshments.

Katerina Raoukka and Anthi Chondrogianni (Teaching Fellows at the University of Bristol) organised the ‘interactive’ game, an auction market in which teams (‘restaurants’) bid for the raw materials required to make different menus. It was a lively session that introduced students to auctions and strategic interaction as they considered how to respond to other teams’ bidding.

In the ‘meet an economist session’, students heard from a panel of economists from banking, telecommunications, the Government Economic Service, economic research (NIESR and the IFS), the Office for National Statistics and economic journalism (the Financial Times). They also had a chance to talk individually to the panel members. The session showcased a diverse range of economists (more than half of the panel members were female) and the varied careers on offer. One of the teachers commented that ‘it was great to see so much diversity to challenge some of the stereotypes around economists’.

After lunch, the students had the opportunity to attend a Festival of Economics panel discussion on ‘Statistics, Lies and Truth in the Post-Face world’, chaired by Alvin Birdi (University of Bristol) with panel members including Matt Dickson (University of Bath), Gloria Origgi (Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique), Felix Ritchie (University of the West of England) and Hetan Shah (Royal Statistical Society).

The rest of the afternoon was taken up with the schools challenge, run by Steve Proud and Babak Somekh. Students had just over an hour to consider the challenges and opportunities generated by the ‘rise of the robots’ and the implications for government policy. Each team had to produce a single-page poster with their ideas, judged by Romesh Vaitilingham and Damian Whittard (UWE). The students discussed the consequences of automation for productivity, employment and inequality, as well as thinking about private/ government ownership. In their posters, all teams showed great economic insight as well as creative thinking.

The feedback on the day was very positive — from the staff running the event as well as the school students and teachers attending. The interactive - and competitive — nature of the sessions was popular. The meet an economist session was successful in shifting perceptions of economics and economists. Our aim is to repeat this type of event next year — we are building contacts with local schools and would like this to be a regular fixture in their schools’ calendar.

University of Manchester, Women in Economics outreach event
Dr Victoria Jotham,4 Keila Meginnis, Melisa Sayli5

A ‘Women in Economics’ event was hosted this year at The University of Manchester to help introduce female pupils to the subject earlier in their school careers and to highlight the benefits of this subject choice both at A-level and at university.

Five schools from across the Greater Manchester region were invited to attend a half day event on Wednesday, 6th December (9.30am-2.30pm) centrally located on the university campus at the Manchester Museum, and in the Arthur Lewis Building, School of Social Sciences.6 Groups of ten, Year 10 female pupils (14 to 15 years old) and their teaching staff attended from each school, to participate in a number of activities aimed at igniting an interest in Economics. The structure of the day included: a keynote lecture, an interactive workshop, campus tour, lunch, followed by a networking session.

The literature suggests that one of the reasons that girls do not study Economics earlier in their school careers is due to their beliefs and expectations associated with the discipline that may be motivating their subject preferences and future choices. In order to better understand what young women associate with Economics, and hopefully to act upon this perception, we asked pupils at the beginning of the event to describe what they thought Economics was about using three words. The day then started with a keynote lecture, ‘Economics for Everyone’ by Diane Coyle, Professor of Economics at the University of Manchester, and Co-Director of Policy@Manchester. She discussed what it was like to be an economist, and used the three words each pupil had noted at the beginning of the session to motivate her talk. Diane continued with what Economics said to her, and how it helps to answer the big questions of today, such as inequality, unemployment, poverty, environment, sustainability, and Brexit. She then looked at what economists do, in terms of observing, and looking at data, and introduced a segregation simulation with audience participation based on the work of Nobel Prize-winning game theorist, Thomas Schelling, illustrating how a small demand for diversity can desegregate a neighbourhood. Diane concluded by outlining the subjects that might be considered for a career as an economist, including the future options for employability.

Our mini-lecture was held by Rachel Griffith, Professor of Economics at the University of Manchester and Research Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), and Helen Miller, Associate Director of the IFS. Their topic introduced ‘Fairness and Taxation’ which started with some recent headlines from the press, including one about One Direction paying more corporate tax in the UK than Facebook. This was followed by asking the pupils to determine the proportion of tax raised for every £1 of economic activity. The total tax revenue for the UK, the main types of tax, and areas of expenditure were also then outlined. The concept of fairness was introduced using examples for: vertical equity, horizontal equity, and equality of opportunity, and why they might matter. Next, who pays income tax was examined and then explored using a range of role models, with a discussion about the difficulties in achieving a desired level of redistribution, including the trade-off between equity and efficiency. This was developed further by demonstrating how economists use empirical evidence to better understand how people respond to incentives. The final messages highlighted how Economics helps us to judge what is fair in taxation by considering what taxes people are currently paying, the whole tax and benefit system, and how people respond to taxes. Rachel and Helen then returned to their example of One Direction and Facebook and analysed whether the girls’ perceptions had changed. Pupils were then encouraged to address three questions in their groups about reducing a top rate of tax, describing whether different types of taxes were fair or unfair, and looking at some of the reasons why the government might want to redistribute money between people and the problems in how this might be achieved. The session then concluded with the findings from a recent experiment by Helen which had asked participants broadly, do you think the UK tax system is fair? The results that were shared also demonstrated how prior information given to different groups of respondents can influence their decision.

Following a campus tour that had taken the pupils to a new venue for lunch, the final networking session began. This gave pupils the opportunity to meet with a range of economists from Manchester (undergraduate, postgraduate, lecturers, professors, alumni) and speakers from the earlier sessions to find out more about their experiences as economists and to ask questions. This session was organised by rotation so that small groups of girls could have a brief discussion every ten minutes with a different economist and have a conversation with them about their academic background, role, study, work, and areas of economic interest. The economists participating in this particular session had already submitted their biographies prior to the day and these had been forwarded to the schools along with an interactive online quiz, to help introduce the pupils to the different areas of the discipline. At the end of this session, a comprehensive survey of the day's activities was issued to all the young women attending. Initial feedback from both the teachers and the pupils was extremely positive regarding the format of the day, the organisational arrangements, substantive content, and the range of activities. The event indicated that there is clearly a desire from schools to look at gender diversity in Economics. In Manchester, we are keen to continue to support these types of events and engagement with the subject to help tackle the issue.

1. Professor of Economics, University of Bristol and Chair of the RES Women’s Committee).
2. University of Bristol
3. Economics Network
4. Economics Undergraduate Manager and Teaching Assistant Coordinator, University of Manchester
5. PhD economics candidates, University of Manchester
6. Significant organisational support was received from the School of Social Sciences Admissions office.

From issue no. 180, January 2018, pp.16-18

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