Economics degrees still 'too narrow in focus'

Research shows continuing lack of historical and critical perspective in most bachelor's degrees

March 26, 2016
Supply and demand graph
Source: istock
Are universities managing to supply courses which meet student demand for more pluralistic forms of economics?

In 2014, a report by the Post-Crash Economics Society at Manchester University offered “an analysis of the failings in economics education and set out a road map for reform”.

By focusing on the neoclassical paradigm and marginalising alternative perspectives, it argued, economics education “stifle[d] innovation, damage[d] creativity and suppresse[d] constructive criticisms that are so vital”, while the study of ethics, politics and history was “almost completely absent from the syllabus”.

So have economics courses become any more fit for purpose over the past two years?

To answer that question, the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics (ISIPE) – consisting of over 100 university groups in 30 countries – carried out a survey of 350 bachelor’s degrees to assess how pluralistic they are.

The results are being presented at a press conference and panel discussions on “Economics education in the 21st century”, taking place in Paris on 26 March.

The broad picture is clear – and largely confirms concerns which have been expressed by students in the UK and round the world. Regardless of the country in which they are taught, economics degrees are highly mathematical, adopt a single narrow perspective and put little emphasis on historical context, critical thinking or real-world applications.

Mathematics, statistics and management make up an average of over 35 per cent of course content, while economic history and contemporary issues such as inequality and the environment comprise only 10.5 per cent of subject content.

Many have argued that the economics profession needs to take a long, hard look at itself in the light of the 2008 banking crisis. Yet the kind of reflexive learning that provides contextualisation and evaluation of economic theory is currently almost absent from degree courses, featuring in only 2.5 per cent of modules, according to the research.

“The study confirms crucial dimensions of our demands for pluralism in economics,” said Arthur Jatteau, international coordinator for the survey. “Particularly shocking is the low ratio of reflexive subjects. It is time for universities to step up with their efforts for pluralising economics curricula.”

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Reader's comments (6)

Interesting results. It is indeed unfair on how the future generation of economists are being trained. The trade-off here is which one (knowing more mathematics or knowing more about the history) will be more beneficial to society: be it in turbulent times like crashes, or when we are on the uphill. Without disentangling research and teaching (hopefully), it is worth pointing out that research which is well regarded in macroeconomics (personal opinion about where most of the failings come from) does not in fact promote history and is not synchronized with what the data says. They calibrate - based on assumptions with little economic intuition. These are well regarded by peers. If you ask some macro-economists explanations regarding their models, you'll get an answer which is leading to nowhere (or is counter-intuitive) ... and if you keep asking long enough... they'll tell you this is how it is usually done in the literature. It is a reminder of the story about the Emperor's new Clothes where in this case Maths/Physics shenanigans find the perfect haven to expose their skills. Solution: Reassess everything that is taught in universities - we should hope for better interaction with society. Ask all the macro-economists to be retrained (note some of them have never studied economics at undergraduate or in a taught masters - they're simply economists because they can solve some interesting equations). Using Einstein as a model here, anyone involved in highly mathematical subjects should be able to tell to the common taxpayer what their model all about, and why their work deserves to be funded. Research should be promoted towards fields which uses good economic intuition, backed with empirical findings which tell us a story. Perhaps it is now time for such research to be regulated. The teaching will obviously follow from that. That being said, while learning economic history is good for the soul and encourages reflecting, crises and turbulent economic times have their own flavor. It is hard to predict where crashes come from. If flaws are identified in the system, they are addressed with a lag. Crises are the signal which point to these flaws. The recent crash was another example of how banks can mine loopholes in regulatory frameworks. If we know what's not working, there is no reason why we can't fix it. So if... history repeats itself... so far so good... Perhaps main takeaways we need to think here is how to tune regulation with current financial innovations. And knowing history of different crises across the globe may indeed be helpful.
The Origin of Wealth by former McKinsey & company senior advisor Eric D.Beinhocker explains just that and delves even deeper into the issue - equilibrium, in its economic sense, does not exist in the world. The disingenuous, but still brilliant, borrowing of the concept of equilibrium from physics is the very reason economics degree foster a very restricted mindset. The economy is a complex adaptive , out-of-equilibrium dynamic system. As mouthful as that is, he argues that us student should avoid using the models we learned in econ as method to fuel our decision , and rather use it as a general frame of mind when dealing with issues related to economics. Inflation , recession and business cycles are much easier to understand when you account for the fact that the economy is in essence at equilibrium when it's dynamics are attempting to move towards equilibrium. In short, economics is in need of a ln exact science referendum, and not just the history, philosophy, and psychology of it.
While the curriculum is being reformed, will all central bank employees with an economics degree please resign immediately.
The problem is: the world's currencies are designed to keep the population subdued and poor, while keeping the wealthy, wealthy. So, the wealthy hire very smart people to sell the idea that the world is fair, and that the currency is being managed for the greater good. It's not. It's a slavery device. Are you a "bond-owner" or a "bond-payer"? If you are a "bond-payer", how can you become a "bond-owner" and live off the interest from the "bond-payers"?
"Many have argued that the economics profession needs to take a long, hard look at itself in the light of the 2008 banking crisis." Yes, it needs to stop indoctrinating students with irrational Keynesian dogma that has no real bearing on reality. "Mathematics, statistics and management make up an average of over 35 per cent of course content, while economic history and contemporary issues such as inequality and the environment comprise only 10.5 per cent of subject content." Inequality is not a "contemporary issue". Look at wealth inequality in Adam Smith's day if you want to see REAL inequality. The better we understand real economics, and therefore, the freer we leave people to act, the less inequality there is. That is as true today as it was 200+ years ago. Sadly, many of the "innovations" in economics are wrong, and many are ultimately foolish ploys promoted by governments and their proponents to irrationally restrict economic freedom. There is very little that is "new" in economics. It is simply supply and demand, stacked on top of supply and demand in an infinitely complex and self-similar fractal latticework. Sure there are some new insights now and then. Carl Menger corrected Adam Smith's "Labor Theory of Value" with the more accurate "Subjective Theory of Value", Milton Freedom wrote on the "Natural Rate of Unemployment", and so on. But so many "new ideas" in economics are proven to be bad ones. The Phillips Curve and the bulk of Keynesianism swiftly comes to mind. As does the work of Piketty, which has been swiftly debunked and discredited. Unless of course, you work in government and are looking for new half-baked "reasons" to restrict economic liberty.
Fix your comments system. It is broken and does not display paragraph breaks. It is currently unreadable and may as well not even be here if it's going to be this broken.