April 2015 newsletter – A note from Diane Coyle and Simon Wren-Lewis

The promise by the Post-Crash Economics Society in the last RES Newsletter that they will ‘engage constructively’ with their department and with other economists in order to achieve curriculum reform so many of us agree is necessary is very welcome. On the face of it, it should be straightforward to agree on constructive reforms. There is a great deal of overlap between what the PCES and other students say they would like to see and the recommendations of — for example — the steering group of academics and employers that reported in this Newsletter in April 2013. Margaret Stevens, writing in this issue, also expresses her agreement with much of what the PCES says. 

There are also some areas of disagreement about what change in the curriculum is needed. It is not constructive to interpret this disagreement as evidence that, ‘The primary barrier to reform is the belief among a large number of economists today that their version of economics is the right way to do it.’ Most economics departments are not trying to ensure their students are ‘strictly adhering to narrow methodological frameworks.’ What they are trying to do is equip their graduates to think critically about problems such as climate change, inequality and financial cycles, to be able to analyse a wide range of economic questions, to know how to find and interpret evidence, to have an appetite for debate and learning, and to be well equipped for whatever path they choose after graduation.

Learning about economic methodology, history of thought and economic history — more than in most courses today — is desirable. The financial crisis has told us the folly of neglecting the lessons of history. It is interesting that many employers also say they would like graduates to know more economic history. However, they also want graduates with a strong command of econometrics and technical models — already a master’s degree is increasingly necessary for those who hope to work as an economist.

Economics is in large part a vocational discipline and these technical tools are necessary too. While there is scope to rationalise the technical tools that are taught to make way for some methodology, history of thought and particularly economic history, that scope is limited. We therefore think economics should not be taught as if it were one of the humanities in a traditional liberal education. Recognising the vocational nature of an economics degree can still allow a ‘problem first’ approach that the PCES article calls for — indeed, that is the fundamental approach of the CORE curriculum they seem so determined to dismiss. We need reform in the way economics is taught, but not a revolution.

Diane Coyle, University of Manchester. 
Simon Wren-Lewis, University of Oxford.

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