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Rethinking Economics Degrees

By Yann, published on 12/07/2018 Blog > Academia > Economics > The Fight For Diversity In Economics Teaching

If you’ve already begun to look at potential universities where you can study an undergraduate economics degree, you may have noticed that there’s a lot in common between some courses.

While universities will have their own set of entry requirements, including minimum grades and subject combinations at A-Level to apply, there are some strong similarities between some course modules taught across the U.K.

For example, it’s not uncommon for undergraduate economics degrees to focus on core topics, including areas such as:

  • Macroeconomics;
  • Microeconomics; and
  • Econometrics

Although each university will have other modules on offer, ranging from quantitative economics to the history of economic thought, there is often significant overlap in the actual content taught by universities, although each university’s department will admittedly teach these areas in their own way, based on each lecturer’s own expertise and research.

As we will see below, while economics degree courses have been very similar in terms of core content throughout the U.K. for a number of years, there are many voices, from both students and institutions alike, who are calling for changes to be made in how economics is taught.

The Economics Syllabus in Many U.K. Universities is Under Fire

One of the primary criticisms levied against the economics syllabus in undergraduate degrees is the focus that many universities place on the neoclassical school of economic thought.

In brief, neoclassical economics examines supply and demand, while operating on the assumption that economic agents make decisions that will maximise personal profit. It became popular during the 20th century and is one of, if not, the most popular and prominent school of economic thought taught today.

Neoclassical economics centres on the base assumption that individuals act rationally when making decisions. As we will cover later, not all economic schools of thought share this belief in the rational economic agent.

Although this school of economic thought has been hugely influential, there are increasing concerns that, by placing too much of a focus on neoclassical economics and associated economic models, economics graduates are being deprived of learning about other important schools of economic thought.

One of the more prominent student bodies that have spoken out against this method of teaching economics is the Post-Crash Economics Society of the University of Manchester.

The University of Manchester Mansfield Cooper building. The Post-Crash Economics Society was founded by University of Manchester students. (Source: CC BY 2.0, Vita Student, Flickr)

Comments by The Post-Crash Economics Society

The University of Manchester Post-Crash Economics Society is a collection of economics students at the University of Manchester, who advocate for extensive changes to be made to the way that economics is taught in the U.K., including at Manchester University.

In their 60-page report, they essentially argue that university economics courses have too great a focus on neoclassical economics, at the expense of other economic schools of thought, which have become marginalised in teaching.

Their issue with neoclassical economics is not that it should not be taught, but rather that there should not be as much emphasis on this school of thought. They point to the recent financial crisis in 2008 to highlight the fact that neoclassical economics could not explain why the crash happened, proving that this school of thought isn’t infallible.

As a result, it’s important to understand other economic schools of thought and their theories, so that students can judge for themselves which theories carry more merit than others.

Aside from these concerns, there are other problems that the society highlights with respect to economics degrees taught by the University of Manchester, including:

  • Too much focus on the neoclassical school of economic thought;
  • Too little focus on the ethical considerations and consequences of economic policies; and
  • Too little focus on the history of economic thought, including major events such as the Great Depression.

Although the report released by the society could just be dismissed as insignificant, the Post-Crash Economics Society has received support in their endeavours from a number of prominent figures within the economics arena, including figures such as:

  • Victoria Chick, a post-Keynesian economist;
  • Dr Stephen Davies, Head of Education at the Institute of Economic Affairs; and
  • Ha-Joon Chang, an economist and specialist in development economics.

There have also been similar groups appear at other universities across the U.K. that are advocating changes to how economics is taught at university.

What’s more, Andrew Haldane, the chief economist at the Bank of England, wrote the foreword to the society’s report. So by all accounts, it seems as though the Post-Crash Economics Society has raised some serious, and legitimate, worries about the current state of economics university education in the U.K.

The Bank of England supports changes to universities' economics syllabus. The chief economist at the Bank of England has called for changes to the economics syllabus at universities. (Source: CC BY-SA 2.0, George Rex, Flickr)

What Alternative Economics Theories and Topics Should Be Taught?

There are many other schools of economic thought that can be taught throughout an economics degree. Some typical examples include:

  • Post-Keynesian economics;
  • Institutional economics;
  • Marxist economics; and
  • Ecological economics.

Although some schools of thought may have more traction today than others, it makes sense that an economics course should teach a wide range of economic opinions and theories. After all, economics, at its core, is more of a social science, and so no one theory can be said to be absolute.

Just like in history, where versions of historical events can differ, depending on which historian you ask, so too can economists interpret economic data and events in different ways.

Having an appreciation of different points of view is therefore not only crucial to understanding economics as a whole, but it also gives students insight into analysing and considering different points of view – something which they will undoubtedly encounter in their day to day lives, both at and after university.

Such skills are also appreciated by employers, as students that have a broader understanding of their degree subject should be able to bring greater analytical skills to the table in their new role.

The Flaw in Neoclassical Economic Theories

Another reason why there are increasing calls for changes to university economics courses is also the fact that many neoclassical economic theories and models are based on the assumption that individuals operate and make decisions in rational ways when numerous studies have shown that this is not necessarily the case.

Indeed, behavioural economics, another field within economics, often operate on the assumption that individuals are imperfect economic agents – an assumption which goes against many established neoclassical models. However, sometimes accepting that individuals can be irrational can help to better analyse and understand economic decision making.

A collection of US dollar bills. The financial crisis in 2008 was a turning point in terms of calls for alternative economics teaching. The financial crisis in 2008 led many to question whether universities should be rethinking economics in terms of how it’s taught. (Source: CC0 1.0, geralt, Pixabay)

Understanding Alternative Economics

Arguably, economic schools of thought other than neoclassical economics, such as post-Keynesian economics, should not really have to be referred to as “alternative economics.” Yet many universities do not place much emphasis on such schools of thought, which marginalises them as a result, even if their theories are of equal value and are worth studying.

While it’s unclear whether calls for changes to the economics courses at U.K. universities will be made, it’s important to realise that some areas of economics will continue to be taught at university.

This includes topics such as:

  • Monetary policy;
  • Macroeconomics, including areas such as unemployment;
  • What causes economic growth and increased economic wealth;
  • Fundamental economic models and concepts, from financial economics to the world economy.

This is because these areas remain core to students’ understanding of economics as a field, and help equip graduates with at least a basic understanding of what makes economies, whether local or global, tick.

If you are looking to study economics at university, or you are a current undergraduate student, you may want to find out more about these schools of thought, or at least to understand economic history in greater detail.

If these are topics you would like to learn more about, then there are online resources you can turn to that can help broaden your horizons. The Post-Crash Economic Society, for examples, lists a selection of diverse blogs on their website, which you could read at your leisure to improve your understanding of different, perhaps underappreciated, areas of economics, such as post-Keynesian economics.

Another option is to hire an economics tutor to help teach you about marginalised economic areas if you aren’t able to study them at school or university. There are tutors out there that have experience with a variety of schools of economic thought, and they would be happy to share their knowledge with you. Superprof, for example, has a variety of economics tutors with a range of experience and specialisms.

So if you’d like to learn about anything in the wider world of economics, from international economics or the history of economic thought, a tutor can really help you maximise your potential and your academic performance. Just enter in your postcode and Superprof will match you with suitable tutors in your area, regardless of whether you’d prefer online tuition lessons or face to face tutoring.

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