Economics students worldwide call for subject overhaul

In an open letter published on 5 May, 42 associations of economics students in 19 countries called for more pluralism in the way economics is taught at universities. The letter – which said the subject was in crisis and its lack of intellectual diversity was limiting their ability to contend with multi-dimensional challenges – made waves in media worldwide.

The letter was extensively commented on in major international media like the Financial Times, Guardian, Le Monde, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, South China Morning Post, Handelsblatt and numerous other news sites, blog-pages and internet links.

“It is not only the world economy that is in crisis. The teaching of economics is in crisis too, and this crisis has consequences far beyond the university walls,” the student letter states, adding: “We, 42 associations of economic students from 19 different countries, believe it is time to reconsider the way economics is taught.

“We are dissatisfied with the dramatic narrowing of the curriculum that has taken place over the last couple of decades. This lack of intellectual diversity does not only restrain education and research. It limits our ability to contend with the multi-dimensional challenges of the 21st century – from financial stability, to food security and climate change.

“The real world should be brought back into the classroom, as well as debate and a pluralism of theories and methods. This will help renew the discipline and ultimately create a space in which solutions to society’s problems can be generated.”

The student associations – with names like the Post-Crash Economics Society from Manchester University in England, the Network for Pluralist Economics in Germany and the Javadhpur University Heterodox Economics Association in India – were either established or motivated by the 2008 economic crisis and inability of ‘mainstream economics’ to predict or communicate the dangers of economic downturn to the public.

Several student associations have produced papers and arranged seminars and conferences discussing how the present curriculum in economics – and teaching methods and testing that extensively uses multiple choice at bachelor level – is counterproductive to “the need to broaden the range of the tools economists employ to grapple with economic questions”.

Influential support

In 2013, for instance, the Post-Crash Economics Society – PCES – in Manchester produced a 60 page analysis: “Economics, Education and Unlearning: Economy education at the University of Manchester”, which was commented on in The Economist.

The report has a foreword by Andrew Haldane, chief economist designate at the Bank of England, titled “The Revolution in Economics”.

“It is time to rethink some of the basic building blocks of economics”, Haldane wrote, referring to the 2008 creation by George Soros of the Institute for New Economic Thinking, or INET, “to stimulate a refresh and reset of the economics discipline and, within that, economics teaching.

“Two years ago, Gregory Mankiw’s undergraduate economics class at Harvard walked out at the narrowness of the curriculum. Here in the UK, Wendy Carlin from University College London is leading a project to reform the economics curriculum among a number of UK universities, with sponsorship from INET.

“These are all encouraging steps in the right direction,” Haldane argued.

Carlin is developing an open-source introductory economics course that stresses dynamics, instability, institutions and environmental questions, and integrating new results and empirical evidence.

Other influential economists have supported the student agenda. For instance on 4 May Diane Coyle, managing director of Enlightenment Economics, wrote on the economics analysis website VoxEU that there was probably reasonable agreement on the need for curriculum reform, “but no agreement on whether this means rejecting the basic building blocks of the subject”.

In the UK, Coyle wrote, a working group had developed a statement of principles and concluded that undergraduate courses should become more pluralistic. There was probably widest agreement that curriculum change should include: elements of economic history in core modules; incorporating issues on the frontiers of research; encouraging inter-disciplinary interest; and ensuring teaching of key skills such as data handling and good communication.

The need for alternatives to ‘mainstream’ economic analysis is also supported by a number of best-selling books such as Ha-Joon Chang’s Economics: The user’s guide and the present volume by Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

The Paris-based economist, who is inspired by economic historian Fernand Braudel and the ‘Annales School (‘History Without Names’), monitored economic growth and the global dynamics of income and wealth distribution over the last 200 years, and delivers predictions for capital accumulation and distribution across many countries.

Piketty explicitly criticises mainstream economics teaching for focusing too much on mathematical modelling and not on underlying economic dynamics. The international response to his book has been favourable: it sold more than 50,000 copies in early May when Amazon started distribution, and it could inspire students seeking ‘alternative’ economics.

Resistance to student calls mounts

Resistance towards the critical message of the activist students is also mounting.

Professor Simon Wren-Lewis of Oxford University wrote on his blog Mainly Macro that the PCES report was “eloquently and intelligently written, but I believe in some respects fundamentally misguided”.

Wren-Lewis goes on to deliver an also eloquent critique of what he agrees and disagrees with in the PCES report – which is not the case with an intervention by a ‘Professor Larsdon’ who, commenting on the student initiative on Swedish economist Lars P Syll’s blog, wrote:

“Radicals! They are all communists trying to take over the world, that’s what pluralism really means. I mean Marx is so addictive… Don’t go on their website!”

The open letter may already have had another impact, as last week Lars P Syll revealed on his blog that he had accepted an offer to become head of the school of economics, history and politics at Kingston University in the UK.

“Kingston will respond positively to calls from students for genuine reform of economics education – like those made by the Post-Crash Economics Society in Manchester, and the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics,” Syll wrote.

“These student calls for genuine reform are timely, because though there are some initiatives for reform, academic economics has, if anything, become more hostile to criticism of the mainstream and to presentation of alternative perspectives than it was before the crisis.”