April 2015 newsletter – Revisiting the State of Economics Education

As we reported in the April 2012 issue of the Newsletter (no. 157), the Royal Economic Society, the Bank of England and the Government Economic Service hosted a conference in February 2012 on the state of economics education. In this article, Alvin Birdi reports on a follow up event, hosted by the Economics Network and held at the Bank of England on Tuesday 17th March. The event was attended by over 140 academics, students, journalists, practitioners and policy makers.

In her introduction, Diane Coyle noted how the terms of the debate on the economics curriculum had changed since she hosted her original conference in 2012 in which the question under discussion was the direction of change for economics teaching in the wake of the financial crisis. A lot had happened in the intervening three years and it was time to take stock.

Back in 2012 the time was ripe to focus on whether and why to change the curriculum. By 2015 the issue had turned almost squarely to the practicalities, barriers and successes of implementing curriculum reform. The Symposium showed that there was still room for entrenched criticism, even polemic, but that various concrete developments had shifted the debate forwards.

Andy Haldane and Sujit Kapadia opened the conference with a session on the Bank of England’s One Bank Research Agenda in which the gap between employers’ needs and graduate attainment was filtered through the lens of recent macroeconomic policy. The gap was not just, as noted in the Economics Network’s employers’ survey of 2014/15, in the areas of transferable skills such as written communication and team-working, but also in the conspicuous absence in the curriculum of recent policy priorities such as micro and macro-prudential policy.

The use and analysis of data in teaching was a major focus of the day. In the Bank’s introductory session the question was raised as to whether students should be taught to understand new types of data. Appropriate Google searches, it was shown, could perform almost as well as costly surveys in areas such as the tracking of economic sentiment, and simple network node diagrams expressing the systemic exposure of financial institutions may provide powerful information to inform regulatory policy.

Richard Davies (The Economist) discussed whether gold-standard econometrics programmes such as Stata should be displaced by computer languages such as Python which are increasingly used to analyse the big data emanating from businesses such as AirBnB, Uber and Facebook. Jonathan Haskell (Imperial College) retorted that economics is inference based and relies on samples rather than population analyses which he argued were more relevant for business prediction than for economic understanding.

Discussions of curriculum reform often create wishlists of topics that should be included in the syllabus. The focus on practicality and implementation at the Symposium inevitably meant that the appropriate consideration was of what must be left out of the syllabus to make way for the new. Steve Pischke (LSE) reported on the very real challenges involved in delivering an econometrics course squarely aimed at problem-based dataanalysis but which has excised from the syllabus dearly cherished well-established parts of the traditional theoretical econometrics apparatus.

One of the clearest examples of concrete practical curriculum reform is the new CORE curriculum developed by Wendy Carlin (UCL) and taught at University College London and the University of Bristol this year (as well as at a number of overseas universities). One panel was devoted to CORE although it also surfaced repeatedly as a focal point throughout the day. The Symposium heard from students at UCL who spoke of various benefits of the online and multi-media interactive text, not least for students with specific learning disabilities. Ralf Becker (Manchester) reported on the institutional challenges of introducing a new syllabus such as CORE into a large department and Ha-Joon Chang, while acknowledging the considerable practical progress made by the CORE project, reported on a new INET-funded initiative to develop another syllabus based on a more obviously ‘heterodox’ economics than is apparent in CORE, whose focus is on bringing the insights of recent economics research to the forefront of undergraduate teaching.

Other speakers considered ways of broadening the curriculum and the benefits of perspectives beyond those traditionally taught in economics departments. In the summing up, Charlie Bean, Alan Kirman, Dave Ramsden and Vicky Chick considered the next steps to be taken in the reform of economics teaching. That the discussion had shifted since the original symposium in 2012 was clearly evident but one left feeling that the debate was far from settled and that another such gathering may well be expected at the Bank in another few years.