Students assess the value of the new economics course

Audience members reach for their clickers, as they think about the correct answer to the multiple choice question posed by the presenter. Then a bar graph showing how they voted appears on the white screen overlooking the room.

We are not in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and the 200-strong crowd isn’t there to help a nervous contender reach television glory. On the contrary, I am sitting in an amphitheater at University College London (UCL), and my fellow listeners are freshmen struggling with complex economic issues, including what is inflating a real estate bubble.

This is the last lecture of the “Core” economics course, which has been rolled out this year to universities around the world, including Sciences Po in Paris and the University of Sydney. The program tries to respond to a wave of criticism from student groups, who have attacked economics departments for failing in their programs to address real-world issues, such as the causes of a financial crisis.

The project, led by UCL professor Wendy Carlin, has received financial support from the Institute for New Economic Thinking, a research group funded by billionaire George Soros. The plan is to extend it beyond the institutions that signed this year’s pilot.

Students who tested Core (Curriculum Open-access Resources in Economics) at UCL this year seem to have enjoyed it. Certainly the conference had its fair share of yawns. A tired student sitting behind me collapsed in the chair as Professor Carlin began discussing the US Federal Reserve’s decision to provide emergency liquidity to systemically important banks at the height of the financial crisis .

But the heavy use of data – one of the supply and demand graphs used to explain a bubble had US real estate market prices between 2006 and 2008 – as well as the interactive material and quizzes seem to really do the trick. difference.

“I didn’t know Core when I first came to UCL,” said An, a 19-year-old Vietnamese student who spent the lecture noting up her slides on her PC while still taking notes on my notepad. old. “It’s a very broad course, that’s what makes it really interesting. “

Video: Teaching Real World Economics to Undergraduates

Others, however, fear that the academics who designed Core were not radical enough to challenge mainstream economic thinking.

“The core curriculum is not a pluralist agenda,” said Yuan Yang, who helped found Rethinking Economics, a network of student groups that wants to change the way economics is taught. “It presents a paradigm, where students should be able to choose from different schools of thought. “

Professor Carlin accepts these criticisms, but says it is not intended to teach a course on the history of economic thought.

“We always want to teach students to use business models,” she said. “But we also want to cover topics like inequalities, which weren’t really taught before.”

One advantage of Core is that it introduces theoretical tools such as game theory – the study of strategic interaction popularized by the feature film. A beautiful spirit – at the start of the course. These are relatively new branches of the economy which are usually added to existing programs as appendices.

Still, as Professor Carlin went through the final slides of her lecture, I couldn’t help but think that she was a little too ambitious. In the last five minutes of a lesson that had previously touched on the Great Depression, the Global Financial Crisis, and the Great Recession, she slipped out a few slides on the effect technological change will have on jobs – one of the most debated topics among economists.

It’s entirely possible that the soft-spoken academic decided to send a low-key message to the only journalist in the room. The conference ended with the presentation of a market report automatically generated by a computer and an invitation to its students to think carefully about which career path to choose. Most likely, she thought this was an interesting topic that her students should be exposed to.

However, it also shows how, at times, Core can lack focus. Edward, an 18 year old student from the Leeds area told me: “I’m very happy with the course, but sometimes I wish it got right to the point. The story can be too wordy.

Ultimately, the test of whether the course is too complex will be in the exams. Some of the questions on the document template, which include a discussion of the economic impact of the Uber taxi app, seem interesting and relevant to a stranger. But, as we all know, what ultimately matters to students is whether they pass or fail.

With that, I still have questions. In the last interactive quiz, only eight percent of the class chose the correct option. “Here you have work to do,” said Professor Carlin.

This comment may apply to her course as well, but she made an impressive start.

Aim for clarification – technical details can wait
Martin Wolf on what should be taught in economics classes

The financial crisis of 2007-2009 and the economic malaise that followed shook the confidence of many young people in the economy taught to them in universities. It has also shaken public confidence in the wisdom of economic decision-makers. This loss of confidence is understandable. The economy was put to the test and, in important respects, was deemed insufficient.

This raises a question: what should be taught in universities now.

Part of the answer will come from developments in the field. Over time, the incorporation of new ideas and techniques can enable the academic discipline to better meet the intellectual and political challenges facing the world. It turns out that economists didn’t know some of the things they thought they knew. Indeed, the very compartmentalization of professional discipline was opposed to such an understanding.

Another part of the answer, however, has to come from the question of what an undergraduate education should achieve. The answer should not be to train apprentices in a very technical and narrow discipline taught as a branch of applied mathematics. For the vast majority of those learning economics, what matters is an appreciation of a few basic ideas, on the one hand, and the complexity of economic reality, on the other.

Basically, the economy is a field of investigation and a way of thinking. He has a number of basic ideas. These include: opportunity cost, marginal cost, rent, sunk costs, externalities and effective demand. There are many other such simple ideas which retain considerable relevance and explanatory power.

Economics also allows people versed in its basic concepts to at least make sense of debates about growth, taxation, monetary policy, economic development, inequality, etc. Such an understanding is important to students at least as much in their role as citizens as in their activities as workers or entrepreneurs.

It is not necessary to have a large technical apparatus to understand these fundamental ideas. Indeed, the technical apparatus can hinder understanding. Much of the understanding can also be gained through decent undergraduate education, but not overly technical.

This is what I was fortunate enough to acquire during my own years of studying philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford in the late 1960s. Today I believe someone with my own humanities training would be lost.

In addition, although much more difficult in the time available, it is very useful to expose students to heterodox alternatives to orthodox economics. It can only be selective. But exposure to Hyman Minsky’s ideas, for example, would be very helpful to anyone seeking to understand the macroeconomic implications of liberalized finance.

Most importantly, teaching economics to undergraduates needs to focus on fundamental ideas, core issues, and real realities. Such a program may not be the best way to produce candidates for doctoral programs. So be it. Studying economics at university should not be viewed through such a narrow lens. Its aim is to produce people with broad economic enlightenment. Leave the technical details for later.


Letter in response to this report:

Bringing the economy back to liberal university life / By Hugh Goodacre