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.
6 Comments on “The Mint is listening to… Daniel Woodell 21, Third year Economics”
With all respect to the author, I can’t say I agree with any of this. University courses are taught how they are for a reason- to prepare students for the world of work.
While it’s unfortunate that there isn’t time to focus on alternative approaches, these cannot be entertained as they’re far less important than the current mainstream concepts; and lecturers will always have to put forward the arguments that are actually relevant, and accepted in the real world.
Sadly, a CV full of alternative Marxist accolades simply won’t get anybody a job in relevant economics – and it’s the prime function of the institution to prepare you for the future. I imagine that students who are taught irrelevant and flaky principles would wind up blaming the university when they fail to succeed in the world we actually live in.
So Gareth, do you not think that students should have a critical perspective on mainstream concepts? Would you differentiate other approaches to understand economies such as complexity, institutional and feminist economics from Marx’s economics? Are you actually aware of any/many different approaches to economics apart form the mainstream? Few people are as they generally aren’t taught.
Hi Gareth, thanks for your response.
Firstly I disagree with the notion that university’s sole purpose is to help students get a job – even leaving aside the friendships I have made, I attend because I enjoy learning and furthering myself.
Secondly, I’m finding it hard to believe that you genuinely think that some of the behaviour I describe from my lecturers is consistent with “preparing students to succeed in the world of work”. Isn’t critical thinking one of the most important skills an employer could want in a potential employee?
There is so much that can be improved on our degrees without even having to remove existing content, yet progress in that regard is so painfully slow. The idea that other schools of thought are “flaky” and neoclassical economics isn’t belies the history of the subject, and also the failures of neoclassical theory. Sure, neoclassical economics is useful, but to pretend that alternative theories are a homogenous group of flakiness is disingenuous.
Sadly in my experience of working with students, throughout the country, many university courses are not as comprehensive as they could be. All too often students graduate and go into the world of work to find that most of what they have studied is largely unrelated to the role they have strived to get into. The amount of tuition fees students have to pay surely entitles them to something better! Well said Daniel and well done for challenging the education establishment in order to make positive changes for future students!
Prepare you for the future? Let me quote from Robert Skidelsky’s new book “What’s Wrong with Economics? A Primer for the Perplexed”:
“In few subjects is the gulf between what students are taught and what researchers practise as wide as it is in economics. It is quite possible for capable, hardworking student to study economics for three years, receive an excellent mark for their degree and still not really have the faintest idea of what professional economists do. ”
The current mainstream concepts, including the presumptions that all humans are utility maximizers, that all social problems have economic solutions, and that crises like the climate emergency are externalities, are actually the cause of many of our problems. If economics students don’t study them, how can they prepare for the world of work?
The trouble with economics is that the universities have made this subject very complicated and confusing, when what we really need to see is how it works in simple and straight-forward terms. I have written a description about how this is possible and for which the students included here should review and see if they agree.
Making Macroeconomics a Much More Exact Science
Today macroeconomics is treated inexactly within the humanities, because at a first look it appears to be a very complex and easily confused matter. But this does not give it fair justice, because we should be trying to find an approach to the topic and examine it in a better way that avoids these problems of complexity and confusion. Suppose we ask ourselves the question: “how many different KINDS of financial (business) transaction occur within our society?” Then the simple and direct answer shows that that only a limited number of them are possible or necessary.
Although our sociological system comprises of many millions of participants, to properly answer this question we should be ready to consider the averages of the various kinds of activities (no matter who performs them), and simultaneously to idealize these activities so that they fall into a number of commonly shared ones. This employs some general terms for expressing the various types of these transactions, into what becomes a relatively small number of operations. Here, each activity is found to apply between a particular pair of agents—each one having individual properties. Then to cover the whole sociological system of a country, the author finds that it requires only 19 kinds of exchanges of the goods, services, access rights, taxes, credit, investment, valuable legal documents, etc., verses the mutual opposing flows of money. Also these flows need to pass between only 6 different types of representative agents.
The analysis that led to this initially unexpected result was prepared by the author and it may be found in his working paper (on the internet) as SSRN 2865571 “Einstein’s Criterion Applied to Logical Macroeconomics Modeling”. In this model these 19 double flows of money verses goods, etc., are shown to pass between the 6 kinds of role-playing entities. Of course, there are a number of different configurations that are possible for this type of simplification, but if one tries to eliminate all the unnecessary complications and sticks to the more basic activities, then these particular quantities and flows provide the most concise result, which is presentable in a comprehensive and seamless manner, and one that is suitable for further analysis of the whole system.
Surprisingly, past representation of our sociological system by this kind of an interpretation model has neither been properly derived nor presented before. Previously, other partial versions have been modeled (using up to 4 agents, as by Professor Hudson), but they are inexact due to their being over-simplified. Alternatively, in the case of econometrics, the representations are far too complicated and almost impossible for students to follow. These two reasons of over-simplification and of over-complexity are why this non-scientific confusion is created by many economists and explains their failure to obtain a good understanding about how the whole system works.
The model being described here in this paper is unique, in being the first to include, along with some additional aspects, all the 3 factors of production, in Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” book of 1776. These factors are Land, Labor and Capital, along with their returns of Ground-Rent, Wages and Interest/Dividends, respectively. All of them are all included in the model, as a diagram in the paper.
(Economics’ historians will recall, as originally explained by Adam Smith and David Ricardo, that there are prescribed independent functions of the land-owners and the capitalists. The land-owners speculate in the land-values and rent it to tenants, whilst the capitalists are actually the owners/managers of the durable capital goods used in industry. These items may be hired out for use. Regrettably, for political reasons, these 2 different functions were deliberately combined by John Bates Clark and company about 1900, resulting in the later neglect of their different influences on our sociological system– the terms landlord and capitalist becoming virtually synonymous along with the expression for property as real-estate.)
The diagram of this model is in my paper (noted above). A mention of the related teaching process is also provided in my short working paper SSRN 2600103 “A Mechanical Model for Teaching Macroeconomics”. With this model in its different forms, the various parts and activities of the Big Picture of our sociological system can be properly identified and defined. Subsequently by analysis, the way our sociological system works can then be properly seen, calculated and illustrated.
This analysis is introduced by the mathematics and logic that was devised by Nobel Laureate Wassiley W. Leontief, when he invented the important “Input-Output” matrix methodology (that he originally applied only to the production sector). This short-hand method of modeling the whole system replaces the above-mentioned block-and-flow diagram. It enables one to really get to grips with what is going-on within our sociological system. Subsequently it will be found that it is the topology of the matrix which actually provides the key to this. The logic and math are not hard and is suitable for high-school students, who have been shown the basic properties of square matrices.
By this technique it is comparatively easy to introduce a change to a preset sociological system that is theoretically in equilibrium (even though we know that this ideal is never actually attained–it simply being a convenient way to begin the study). This change creates an imbalance and we need to regain equilibrium again. Thus, sudden changes or policy decisions may be simulated and the effects of them determined, which will point the way to what policy is best. In my book about it, (see below) 3 changes associated with taxation are investigated in hand-worked numerical examples. In fact when I first worked it out, the irrefutable logical results were a surprise, even to me!
Developments of these ideas about making our subject more truly scientific (thereby avoiding the past pseudo-science being taught at universities), may be found in my recent book: “Consequential Macroeconomics—Rationalizing About How Our Social System Works”. Please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org for a free e-copy of this 310 page book and for additional information.