What’s the use of economics?

Earlier this year, the Bank of England and the Government Economic Service sponsored a conference to discuss the teaching of economics in the light of the recent crisis. In this article Diane Coyle1 describes plans to take this initiative forward.

Other items related to this theme, published in the Newsletter, include:
Teaching evidence-based economics (October 2013)
The rediscovery of Classical economics (July 2013)
Teaching economics after the crisis (April 2013)
ESRC international benchmarking review (April 2008)
Evidence on the nature of economics (July 2007)
Economics should look eastward (October 2006)
Jochen Runde replies ( October 2006)

This provocative title arises out of a number of conversations last year with people who employ economics graduates. These came about because at the time my eldest son was in his final year of his degree and starting to think about looking for a job (he is now gainfully employed, as an economist). When I mentioned this to fellow-economists in the course of general chat, it triggered some remarkably similar complaints: that new graduates had almost no contextual knowledge about recent events or economic history, and less interest; that the technical skills they have are strong but narrow, and rarely include practical experience in econometrics; that few have the capacity to adapt simplistic models to real problems; and above all that their ability to communicate to non-specialists is weak.

Any sensible employer knows that a newly-minted graduate will need a lot of on-the-job training, and that there is no short-cut to gaining experience. Some of these complaints, especially about the lack of communication skills and intellectual curiosity, are voiced by employers of graduates in any subject. But there was a strong sense of a deeper dissatisfaction with the kind of economics graduates being turned out by UK universities, a dissatisfaction that mirrors some criticisms of economics as a subject. Employers, like many other people in the wake of the crisis, are asking whether economics is too narrow and reductive, at least as manifested in how it is taught to students.

The idea that it might be constructive to have employers and academics teaching young economists discuss these issues took shape in a conference under the auspices of the Bank of England and the Government Economic Service in February 2012. I reported on it in this Newsletter in April 2012. (The book of the pre- and post-conference papers is now published as What’s The Use of Economics? Teaching the Dismal Science After the Crisis.2) There was consensus at the conference that, while no participants believed mainstream economics to be fundamentally flawed, appropriate post-crisis humility meant it ought to become more pluralistic and pay more attention to institutions and recent history. What’s more, participants agreed that the consistent messages from employers deserved careful attention: employers clearly feel that universities are teaching undergraduates as if they will become academic economists, whereas most will work as practioners, if they become economists at all. So it was agreed that finding a mechanism for continuing to discuss how the teaching of economics might evolve was desirable. A working group, consisting of representatives from the RES, GES and Bank of England, Society of Business Economists, CHUDE the Economics Network, and a number of individual academics, has since met to discuss how to take this forward.

One immediate outcome is that the Society of Business Economists will run a survey of its members to complement a recent survey of the Government Economic Service, conducted for the GES by Paul Anand of the Open University and Jonathan Leape of the London School of Economics. The two surveys, when completed, will give some insight into what tasks professional, non-academic economists are required to do and the corresponding skill needs. The early headlines from the GES survey are that economists in the public service need to use a range of institutional knowledge, to synthesize evidence from different sources and using different empirical approaches, and above all to communicate with non-specialists.

A second outcome of the conference is a forthcoming Festival of Economics in Bristol on 23rd-24th November.3 (The Royal Economic Society and GES are among the sponsors.) Its aim is to bring together academics (including from the other social sciences as well as economics), students and the wider public to discuss some of the momentous economic issues of the day. What is the outlook for the UK economy? What do we know about the connections between poverty, individual characteristics, and social context? What is the post-crisis state of economics? One reason for this experiment with a Festival for the public is that many participants in the conference concluded that economics, and the teaching of economics, would be enriched by more dialogue between the academic and non-academic worlds. Of course, the emphasis on ‘impact’ for academic research is creating an incentive to do so anyway, but it is not at all clear what kinds of engagement will prove most fruitful. Communicating more directly with interesting members of the public may prove good for the public understanding of economics, and good for economists.

However, these two initiatives obviously do not address all the issues raised, and the steering group will discuss next steps at a meeting in November. Other ideas at present include a student conference, facilitating a debate about curriculum content and about the Research Assessment Framework, looking at pedagogical practice and tools, and also how to spread best practice given time pressures on academics. However, we would welcome suggestions from readers of this newsletter, especially given our awareness that there may well be a selection bias if we confine the discussion to our own group. There is a complicated nexus of issues concerning the incentives for academics, and the competing pressures they face, the demands of students as fees rise, the educational legacy of ‘teaching to the test’ at the secondary level, the tough jobs market, and also questions about the character of economics as a subject in the light of the crisis. The wider the range of perspectives and insights we can gather on these issues, the better.
1. Diane Coyle is the Director of Enlightenment Economics: diane@enlightenmenteconomics.com
2. Available to readers of this newsletter at a 10 per cent discount for £13.49 (free P&P in UK, £3 elsewhere) - please contact mo@centralbooks.com to request an order form/invoice, or email address, all relevant credit card details and number of books required.
3. For details see http://www.ideasfestival.co.uk/?p=4627

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