It has been almost ten years since economics students rose up in protest against the way they were being taught. Has anything changed?
The dire state of economics at university can make studying the subject a pretty miserable task.
Woe is me, you might think; I did, after all, choose to study this degree.
But students complain that courses are dominated by abstract neoclassical theory, taught religiously with little opportunity for critique. Sadly, I can’t say my experience as a student within a neoclassical economics department has been much better.
Having transferred to economics from a physics degree, I was struck by the sense that economics was trying to play the role of a natural science.
I had hoped that we would discuss different ways of thinking about the many problems our society faces today. Instead, we were consistently being taught opinion as if it was fact. My macroeconomics lecturer once claimed: “Recessions and booms are the optimal economic response to events”.
He didn’t open up the floor for students to debate this assertion; he stated it as a fact.
I suppose we were supposed to just accept that market failure and unsustainable growth are optimal responses that require no intervention. Similarly absurd declarations from the same professor include claiming, “Only Russell Group universities teach proper economics” and that “people shouldn’t blame economists for failing to predict the financial crash”.
Apart from being extremely problematic, these statements display a worrying lack of academic integrity.
It gets worse. Much worse.
I was once dismissed as being a “burgeoning Marxist” by my microeconomics lecturer after I produced a critique of the underlying assumptions of neoclassical consumer theory. Here was a professional academic in a Russell Group university abusing his position to discourage students from actually engaging with what they were being taught.
These incidents show that some university staff possess a blind confidence in their dogma. Far from being becoming of an academic, their perpetual condescension is partly to blame for the issues that economics education faces today. It’s not all bad though.
Some staff at my university understand students’ grievances and make efforts to modernise the course. I recently sat down with the head of department to discuss further reform, and he was excited to improve the way we are taught. An environmental economics module is finally being added to the curriculum – after all it’s only the greatest existential threat humans have ever faced.
There is hope, but I remain sceptical. I would love those patronising staff members to read this article and to reflect on their behaviour, but that probably won’t happen. I take heart from the large number of students I’ve met who want to change the way things work in economics departments.
They are the academics, the policymakers, the Chancellors of tomorrow, and they will carry their ability to think independently and critically into their future positions. We will be better off for it.