Why is an economics degree failing economics?

By Eric Sargent 

The modern economy is evolving as a highly dynamic force. The rise of cryptocurrencies and machine learning have forever changed the way we approach technology. Financial and currency crises have weakened globalisation, a previously impenetrable force. Concerns about the costs of economic growth to equality and the environment have sparked new discussions about what the goals of our economic systems should be. One might reasonably conclude that there has never been a more interesting time to study economics.

Yet, if you were to look at the course handbook for many of the economics modules at Durham you would find that it didn’t address these issues, in fact, it might not address any real-world issues at all. Many modules feel completely abstracted from the real world, like you’re learning the rules of a particularly complicated and arcane board game rather than a serious discipline. Instead of gaining the tools to explain financial crisis, students extensively explore how many lattes a consumer is willing to trade for a pizza.

The economic models and analytical methods we learn are powerful descriptive tools, yes, and many are built from seemingly innocent premises. But that’s not something you could tell from the economics teaching at Durham. It was a dissatisfaction with this type of content and teaching that the Durham Society for Economic Pluralism to launch a report investigating economics education at Durham. (An online copy of the report, Educating Economists?¸can be accessed here)

The report is half descriptive and half prescriptive. The first half is a collection of data about how economics courses were taught taken from student surveys, exam papers, and course handbooks. The results found cross-referencing the data were striking, with students feeling as though they are not taught the foundations of economic theory, encouraged to be critical, or given a chance to apply economics to real-world situations. Put simply, the economics curriculum at Durham pushes students to accept the models they’re taught, without ever being told why the models are accurate or how they are useful.

This weakness of the curriculum is bad for students in the obvious ways: lower student engagement, a less meaningful education, and general dissatisfaction; but can have more pernicious impacts as well. Top employers of economics graduates are increasingly dissatisfied with their critical skills. A survey about economics employers from the Royal Economic Society found that the ability to “apply economic knowledge” to real-world situations was the most valued skill in an economics graduate – a skill explicitly lacking from the current curriculum. Even students doing an economics degree for their career prospects might need to start worrying about what is being taught.

More importantly, this kind of teaching represents a broader miasma in economics academia. The Neoclassical school of economics has dominated the field to the extent that its methodology and ideology are assumed to be fact. Students aren’t taught the foundation of economic theory because academics have so internalised these assumptions that it would be inconceivable to treat them as anything but obvious fact. The idea that human behaviour can be boiled down to rational optimizing behaviour would seem bizarre to most people, but to many academic economists, any other explanation would seem truly aberrant.

Thankfully, DSEP’s report finds that Durham is better than many universities at having a diversity of thought. Optional modules cover important issues like economic history or philosophy, something which is commonly absent in economic curricula. One third year module, heterodox economics, covers a greater a diversity of thought than many three year degrees. The issue isn’t that the foundations of economic thought aren’t taught, simply that they don’t reach enough students. While Durham does some things well in teaching economics, there is still room for improvement.

The second half of the report outlines the ways in which other universities have adapted to improve their teaching, and how we can learn from their example. DSEP make a series of realistic proposals that highlight a way forward in educating economists, ranging from adopting more real-world focused textbooks to creating entirely new modules.

Although not all these proposals are likely to be adopted in the near future, they represent an important first step in achieving a better education. Democratising and improving education won’t happen on its own without dissatisfied students making their voices heard.

Photograph: Eden, Janine and Jim via Flickr

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