Current situation >> Methodology - data
This page describes the data collection process, providing some descriptives on the included programs and the courses within them. Subsequently, it discusses the variables created and the various scales used in distinguishing between the levels of detail in which courses treat certain topics.
If you are looking for information on the research questions, click here.
Approach & Descriptives
We decided to go beyond observing course names only (Onderstal & Hollanders, 2016b), since courses with the same name can be substantially different in content. Instead, we used the online course descriptions (full details on programs and data sources), which are available on the various university websites. To ensure the continuity of our measurements and interpretations across programs, we did the empirical work (coding indicators based on the course descriptions) with a team of only three people, frequently cross-checking and comparing each other’s work.
The data of this report consists of all course descriptions of all Dutch bachelor programs in general economics (results are also available per university).
Sometimes these universities provide more than one, slightly different, economics bachelor programs. In order to focus specifically on the economics education this report deals with the programs at these universities that are most concentrated on general economics. Tilburg for example provides a bachelor “Economics” as well as a bachelor “Economics and Business Economics”. We selected the former, because it is more focused on general economics. We also focused upon the “Economics” specialization tracks in the second and third years. In the case that universities offered general economics programs in both English and Dutch, we selected the program which attracted most students. In all such cases this was the Dutch option.
An important limitation of this research is that course guides do not form a perfect description of what happens in courses. The course may include features that are not reflected in the course outline. In other cases, the course outline may promise more than is delivered. To correct for such occasions, to ensure the program-specific accuracy of our interpretation of the online course descriptions, we asked students who followed the specific courses to review and correct our coding.
Comparability between courses and programmes is a key part of this analysis. Therefore this report uses basic information about course names, year of instruction, number of ECTS and whether a course is obligatory or optional. In particular, it uses weighted ECTS in order to capture the importance of each course in the entire programme, rather than only the number of courses.
An example may service to clarify the way the courses have been weighted. In the second semester of the third year at Tilburg University, students are allowed to choose 3 courses out of a total of 5 courses (each equalling 6 ECTS). Therefore, to determine the weighted number of ECTS for each course, the sum of ECTS required (36=18) is divided by the total sum of ECTS of all possible choices (56=30). With this weight (18/30 = ⅗) and the number of ECTS (6) the relative importance of each course is 18/5 = 3.6, referred to as the weighted number of ECTS.
It is important to note here that our method leaves out an important aspect of the degree of pluralism: the amount of choices. This measurement only shows how many ECTS are, in an average economics degree of 180 ECTS, devoted to a certain approach/methods/etc.
That means that if a certain program has 20 highly diverse electives, of which students can choose 2, will get the same score as a university that has only 5 electives, of which students can choose 2. Next year’s version of this report will hopefully include a method that includes the amount of choice in the pluralism score.
The below table provides an overview of the data collected. The average programme has 36 courses, leading to a grand total of 325 courses over the nine bachelor programmes.
A major methodological challenge has been to categorise each course under a broader umbrella of course categories. Courses were split into Theory, Methods, Thesis, and Minor/Exchange/Internship with the additional distinction for theory courses between Economic theory, Business theory, and Other theory. This was done to focus specifically on the economics related courses offered during the bachelor programmes.
Generally, ‘theory’ courses are the most wide-ranging category in this research, running the gamut from Micro 101 and Port Economics to History of Economics. It should be noted here that we have decided to categorise theoretical and applied courses under one umbrella, since we believe theoretical and applied courses are in content inseparable from each other. A theory is an abstraction of reality and both are in that sense two sides of the same coin.
Business theory is taken into account in the measurements of multi- and interdisciplinarity. In other measurements Business courses are not included, since this report focuses upon economics education. In order to ensure that it is clear what these courses contribute to the education of economics students, a summary of their contents is given below.
Most bachelor programs in Economics are combined with Business in the first (or first and a half) year. So after this period students can choose to fully focus on Economics or Business. This thus means Business students often have Economics courses in the first year of their bachelor program and Economics students have Business courses in their first year. The majority of universities have 12 to 27 ECTS of business courses in their program. Exceptions are Wageningen, which has none, and the UvA, which has 36 ECTS of business courses. These courses are remarkably similar across universities, typically including Accounting, Finance, Marketing, Management and Business Strategy. Although we acknowledge the importance of business courses, these are not the core focus of this study, since they generally focus on practical skills in terms of running a company, rather than gaining a theoretical and empirical understanding of the economy.
How does the omission of these courses affect the findings of this report, in terms of each of the four sub-questions? In terms of methods and techniques, these courses mostly teach financial and accounting calculation techniques, and sometimes fieldwork within firms. In terms of theory, these courses contain a mixture of perspectives, most of which focus on the strategic considerations of either firms or investors. In terms of real world economics, these courses generally would score slightly higher than the average currently found in the report. In terms of didactic methods and critical thinking, they are comparable to other courses in the programs.
In short, their main contributions are additional theoretical perspectives. Therefore, these courses are included in the measurements of the multi- and interdisciplinarity of a track.
There is a clear line between courses that fall under the umbrella of Methods and courses that do not. The courses that fall under this category run the spectrum from participatory observation to linear algebra. As it turns out, there are no methods courses including explicit theory.
The thesis is of vital importance to an economics degree, since it will learn us how to do research. Since this analysis uses course outlines as source it is however impossible to analyze the thesis. The contents of it namely depend on the ideas and individual choices of the students and supervisors. For this reason it is not included in any measurement. This means we have no quantitative data on the thesis requirements. In follow-up research we hope to go deeper into this topic. However, setting aside official requirements for a moment, we do note that it is rare for students to suddenly veer in another direction in terms of theory or methods for their thesis. This is understandable, as the preceding three years will have clearly communicated what is considered ‘proper economics’, and it is quite risky for individual students to deviate from these standards.
Finally, most programs have free space in which students can do a minor, internship, exchange or further elective courses. Doing an internship or studying at a foreign university is of great additional value for us as economics students. Since this is an important indicator of the potential diversity of a program, the ECTS devoted to such options are categorized as Minor/Exchange/Internship’. Just like the thesis, it is however impossible to analyse by looking at course outlines what we, students, actually learn from a minor, exchange or internship. There are endless options for which minors, which courses on exchanges and what internships students can do, so an analysis of all these options fall outside the scope of this research.
A complication in this regard is however that some of this space is in fact used to study economics within students’ own university. In many programs, we are faced with the choice between several economics electives, a minor at another faculty or an internship or study abroad. Students differ in their preference for such choices, so we have attempted to construct an aggregate value. To this end, we have allocated ⅔ of the ECTS in such space to “Minor/Exchange/Internship”, assuming that the other ⅓ of the time, students will choose further elective courses of their own university in economics. That estimate was made based solely on our own personal observations among peers, since we have found no reliable information on the actual percentage of what students choose. Information that could help to improve that estimate would be highly appreciated.
The average composition of a BSc in Economics at Dutch universities measured in (weighted) ECTS is shown in the figure below.
Course content weighting procedure
Again, since course and program comparability is a central goal of this research, it was not sufficient to establish what elements every individual course contains. This report also compares the degree to which those elements were treated in the entire program.
Questions in the sections Q1 (methods), Q2.2 (theory of economics) and Q2.3 (multi- and interdisciplinarity) ask what theory or methods are taught in the course. However, it is not only important to know what theoretical or methodological elements a course contains. Even more important are the proportions. To differentiate, the following categories were used.
1. Not treated. If the theoretical approach or research method was not mentioned or hinted at in the course guide, it is marked as “0”.
2. Briefly treated. If the theoretical approach or research method was mentioned only once, and was not described as constituting a major part of the course, it is marked as “1”.
3. Extensively treated. If the theoretical approach or research method was mentioned more than once and appeared to play a major role in the course, it is marked as “2”.
4. Entire course. If the theoretical approach or research method was described as the main topic of the course, possible with a few other side elements (which is then marked “1”), it is marked as “3”.
Some courses are more differentiated than others, combining several elements within one course. This is accommodated through a weighing system, which distributes the ECTS of the course over the various elements present. Theoretical approaches (or research methods) which were briefly treated (score 1) were assigned a weight of 0.1. Elements which were extensively treated (score 2) were assigned a weight of 0.5. Elements which occupied (almost) the entire course (score 3) were assigned a weight of 1. The ECTS assigned to the entire course are then divided over the various theoretical approaches or methods treated within the course according to the relative weight of each of these approaches.
To measure the dominance of certain theoretical approaches, it makes sense to simply add up their shares of each course to come to a total for the program. But this does not work as well for many other measures, notably those in sub-question 3 (real-world economics). To measure the amount of courses in the programs that go beyond theory and include knowledge of the real economy, courses that have a little bit of this (score 1) were categorized as ‘real world - briefly’ and courses that have a lot or the entire course as ‘real world - extensively’. This allows for a more fine-grained differentiation than a dummy variable would.
The course Statistics Introduction is 6 ECTS. Analysis of the course description shows that the course briefly treats regression analysis, extensively deals with factor analysis, briefly goes over descriptive statistics and briefly touches on survey design. So, three topics are treated briefly and one topic is treated extensively. That is 0.1+0.1+0.1+0.5, a total weight of 0.8. Which results in 6 ECTS/0.8 = 7.5 ECTS per 1 weight.
So the total content of this course is:
Regression analysis: 7.50.1 = 0.75 ECTS
Descriptive statistics: 7.50.1 = 0.75 ECTS
Survey design: 7.50.1 = 0.75 ECTS
Factor analysis: 7.50.5 = 3.75 ECTS
Total: 6 ECTS
Such numbers allow for a relatively precise estimate of the amount of time/ECTS spent on individual theoretical approaches, research methods and the amount of courses in which specific didactic methods are being used. The next chapter, Results, shows estimates of the proportions of these various components of economic curricula.