Changing Expectations: Implications of the new funding era for the teaching of economics

On Friday 1st March, the Economics Network held its Spring Symposium at HM Treasury, London. The event was attended by around 50 delegates, which included university lecturers, recent graduates and practitioners. This report was prepared by Ashley Lait of the Economics Network.

This event was closely tied to a research project, which the Network has launched to explore how recent changes in higher education — such as the increase in tuition fees — and the impacts of the financial crisis may be affecting student expectations and behaviour. Around 20 UK HE economics departments will contribute to this project. Within this overarching theme, the symposium’s main aim was to promote discussion and offer practical steps on how universities and economics departments in particular can manage these expectations.

In the first session, Alison Wride (Greenwich Management School), Margaret Bray (LSE) and Chris Thomas (GES) focused on some of the key questions around expectations and undoubtedly triggered much of the discussion that continued throughout the day. Some of the questions raised included: have students’ expectations actually changed? Are things really very different now from when fees have increased in the past? Do students really know what they want or what is good for them, or does this come with hindsight? The panel and many of the audience members agreed that continuous and clear dialogue with the students throughout their university career was essential. This would allow the students to give feedback to the university/department, strengthen the relationship between the student body and the department and allow teaching staff to inform the students of what is expected of them. This last point is seen as essential: the learning process and its success depends on students putting in effort beyond just turning up to lectures.

At the beginning of the second panel, Guglielmo Volpe from Queen Mary University of London presented some practical steps that lecturers or graduate teaching assistants can take to bring skills development into the classroom by introducing some of the problem-based learning tasks he has used with his students. This teaching method allows students to deal with ‘real world’ issues and data, apply what they have learnt practically and to think independently. While some teaching staff are concerned that this method uses time that could be dedicated to covering more theory, Guglielmo and the other panelists — John Sloman (Economics Network), Jon Guest (Coventry University) and Andrew Gurney (GES) — felt that its effective integration into the curriculum would help graduates to be more prepared for the workplace.

The final panel, entitled ‘Doing more for less: implementation and efficiency’, was led by Carlos Cortinhas and Juliette Stephenson from the University of Exeter Business School. Carlos and Juliette have run a number of workshops for the Economics Network in the past, and along with Martin Poulter (Economics Network) and Caroline Elliott (Lancaster University), they discussed how effective use of technology can not only save lecturers time but can also help to engage and motivate students. The speakers gave demonstrations of how technologies such as clickers and digital notepads can be integrated into lectures and seminars. The panel also focused on free online resources and courses, which rather than being competition for university degrees, can actually be useful additional resources.

Overall, the EN Spring Symposium promoted interesting discussion on the topic, but more importantly, gave attendees clear and practical steps on how to manage student expectations and ensure that their learning experience is positive. Full notes from the panels will be made available on the Economics Network website shortly.

Note: Readers are reminded that The Economics Network is currently accepting papers for its biennial Developments in Economics Education conference, which will be held at the University of Exeter on Thursday 5th and Friday 6th September. For further information, please visit www.economicsnetwork.ac.uk/dee2013.

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