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The world has changed, the syllabus have not – is it time to do something about it?

Manchester

BY CALUM MITCHELL 14/10/2014

In December 2012, a small group of students dissatisfied with an economics education failing to adequately explain a changing world formed a society to campaign for changes to economics teaching at the University of Manchester and beyond. Drawing on the report we published in April 2014, this short article explains our key criticisms of the Manchester syllabus and by extension the wider national teaching of the discipline, as well as highlighting our proposed reforms to the syllabus (The Post-Crash Economics Society, 2014). We are passionate about these reforms because of the role economists play in safeguarding our society’s future prosperity and sustainability. How these economists are trained has powerful implications on their ability to do the above. Our wish here is to provide a better understanding of the aims and methods of the Post-Crash Economics Society at Manchester and to inspire individuals to challenge their experience of economics.

Our criticism of the teaching of economics at many institutions can be split into three areas of failure. There is a failure to represent economics as anything other than a single methodological framework, nor to challenge in any depth the assumptions of the models we are taught. Furthermore, little emphasis is placed on real-world application to the economy, its ethics, nor the history of economic thought. Finally an economics degree fails to adequately train students in the skills necessary to succeed in the working world. I will explain in more detail our reasoning behind each of these criticisms.

First, the teaching of economics in most universities does not cover other schools of thought or alternative ways of doing economics. It instead focuses on understanding a single methodological framework to understand the economy, this being neoclassical economics. Under this school of thought, economics is characterised by individual agents seeking to optimise their preferences under exogenously imposed constraints. A number of competing definitions could instead be offered, i.e. how does firm/family/society reproduce itself (the classical definition), the study of production, distribution and exchange (neoclassical definitions typically focus on the latter), or the study of markets, the enterprise system and interactions between exchange, culture and gender. These competing definitions are almost completely ignored. With it is a wealth of economic understanding, which forms the foundations of schools such as the Austrians, the Ecologists, Post-Keynesians, Institutionalists and more.

The typical response has been to suggest that such alternatives are best approached by a study of other subjects. However economics should not be defined in such a narrow manner and to do so leads to the dogma witnessed today in economics. Within today’s framework, students are rarely required to challenge the assumptions or methodology of particular economic models or to evaluate their applicability to practical situations. How are our budding economists to know in which types of industries firms will conform to, for example, the Cournot or Bertrand models, if either? Such tools are vital in enabling students to judge the validity and soundness of economic theory for themselves.

Second, substantive real-world application is lacking from the syllabus. At best, the implications of a deductively taught theory are shown to be loosely consistent with a few stylised facts at the end of the course. This fails to provide the rigorous empirical testing of falsifiable predictions that we would like to see. Many of these stylised facts are also trivial, for example intertemporal macroeconomics is shown to be consistent with the idea that governments will run deficits followed by surpluses (Lawson, 2013). Such a simple idea is explained in an unnecessarily mathematical and often convoluted manner (Sloman, 2012). Furthermore, many of these stylised facts which purport to show the consistency of the neoclassical framework can indeed be consistent with many theories. For example, the fact that the money supply is correlated with economic growth is consistent with both endogenous and exogenous money theories, as shown by Kaldor (1982) and Tobin (1970).

Third, in addition to a lack of focus on substantive knowledge on the national and global economy, there is little to no emphasis on the history of economic thought. For example, at Manchester, there exists only one optional third year course covering history of economic thought, and students are encouraged to avoid what is seen as a weak option in favour of more mathematically rigorous courses. It seems intuitive to us however, that welfare capitalism might function differently to laissez-faire capitalism, and that a predominantly service-based economy might function differently from a manufacturing-based economy. That Keynes’ General Theory was published in the midst of the Great Depression has relevance that is hard to dispute. Understanding where theories came from, and why, will help students to make better judgments about interpreting and applying theory to analysis of economic phenomena, as discussed above.

Along with ignoring the history of economic thought, economics education fails to consider the subject’s ethical and moral grounding. Economics continually raises questions involving value judgments: which metric should we evaluate the economy by being just one of these? What is presumed to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’? Can we ethically justify recommending policies, and if so why? Students are taught the axioms of utility and how to build a theory from them, but little to no time is spent evaluating whether or not utility is an adequate concept of value and welfare. This points towards a need for an economics education to have at least some consideration of its ethical framework.

Finally, we believe most economics degree fail to equip its students with the necessary skills to succeed in the working world, due in large part to the lack of critical thinking skills developed. Tutorials involve copying problem sets off a board rather than discussing economic ideas, and only 11 out of 48 modules at Manchester include the words ‘critical’, ‘evaluate’ or ‘compare’ in their learning objectives. Consequently, students are trained to digest economic theory and regurgitate it in exams, never questioning the assumptions that underpin it. Students are penalised for considering variety and rewarded for reproducing existing thought by rote, since overwhelming priority is given to demonstrating the ability to apply a prescribed, allegedly homogeneous theory. Skills such as written communication, explaining economic concepts to non-specialists and problem solving are grossly underdeveloped, and yet are seen as vital to the country’s leading employers (Pomorina, 2013).

It seems that the current state of the teaching of economics at many universities is designed for the minority of students who go on to become academic economists, rather than the vast majority who go on to professional work. We would like to see an economics education which begins with the study of economic problems, whereby the economic phenomena are outlined and students are equipped with a toolkit to explain and solve these problems, evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of how different theories explain different phenomena. More specifically, we have offered the following series of changes to the economics syllabus at Manchester to achieve an economics education that is more critical and comparative, to better prepare students for the practical reality of our economy and economic life:

  • Redesign modules to phase out multiple choice exams wherever possible. Make essay writing and presentations more prominent in order to develop written and verbal communication skills. Provide substantive assessment of students’ ability to engage with and criticise theory and to develop arguments for positions in which there is no one correct answer.
  • Economic theory should be linked to bigger picture political, social and ethical questions such as should governments intervene in the market? What if morals are the limits to markets? (Sandel, 2012)
  • A module included for all students to introduce to landscape of different paradigms and contested nature of economics.
  • Data first approach – analyse which theories explain empirical data best at different specific points.
  • Map out the full economic landscape to all undergraduates. Introduce competing paradigms and major debates. Make critical tools available to judge which theories are better or worse.
  • All economics students should do a dissertation. It could be a short dissertation of 20 credits and 9,000 words. Dissertations should give students the chance to critically consider how alternative economic perspectives approach a certain question and develop their own independent argument based on that engagement.
  • Open ‘closed shop’ Economics Department by hiring non-mainstream economists. This will involve the University recognising that its research development strategy as represented in the Manchester 2020 document is detrimental for economics education (The University of Manchester, 2011). It must develop an alternative economic strategy in which a push for higher research rankings is combined with a commitment to hiring non-mainstream economists in the economics department.
  • Redesign core micro and macro modules. Introduce other economic paradigms including institutional, complexity, evolutionary, post-Keynesian, feminist, ecological and Austrian economics into the core modules. Comparatively examine definitions, objectives, assumptions, methodology and implications of economic perspectives. How well do they explain and predict economic phenomena. History of economic thought and economic history should be woven into core modules as a pedagogical tool for teaching theories and models.

Without such reform both at Manchester and many other leading economics departments, a state of affairs will continue whereby a certain method of doing economics has the power to define what is good and bad economics. In addition to the political and institutional processes which have increasingly homogenised the nation’s economics departments, the result has been that students are being taught one way of doing economics as if it represented universal truth. This process must be reversed for the sake of students, the subject and society.

CALUM MITCHELL

is Secretary at Post-Crash Economics Society at Manchester University. He is a third year Politics, Philosophy and Economics. His interests lie in development economics, specifically issues surrounding natural resource use. The University of Manchester Post-Crash Economics Society’s compelling analysis of the failings in economics education and roadmap for reform is accessible

Bibliography:

Kaldor, Nicholas. 1982. ‘The scourge of Monetarism’. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Lawson, Tony. 2013. ‘What is this ‘school’ called neoclassical economics?’. Cambride, UK: Cambridge Journal of Economics.

Pomorina, Inna (2012). “Economics Graduates’ Skills and Employability Survey”, Economics Network and the Higher Education Academy.

Sloman, John et al. (2012). “Economics”. Edinburgh, UK: Pearson.

The Post-Crash Economics Society. 2014. ‘Economics, Education and Unlearning: Economics Education at the University of Manchester’. Manchester, UK.

Tobin, James. 1970. ‘Money and Income: Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc?’, The Quarterly Journal of Economics.

University of Manchester. Manchester 2020 Strategic Plan (November, 2011). Available: http://www.manchester.ac.uk/aboutus/vision/ (Accessed on 04/09/2014).

Sandel, Michael. 2012. ‘What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets’. Harvard University Press.

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