Economics Education

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How do we make our economics education future-proof?

Although there are certainly differences between the various programmes and universities, the general conclusion is that Dutch economics curricula do not prepare students well for taking up a leading role in coping with the fundamental challenges today’s society faces.

Therefore, we collectively have to rethink how we train the economist of today and tomorrow. And to be clear, Rethinking Economics is not meant to be a closed organization of some critical students and academics. Rather, it should be a process, a collective dialogue between students, teachers and professors, curriculum designers, and the stakeholders throughout society. We do not want to dictate how things should be done. Rather, as our logo reflects, we want different ideas to come together, to get further through dialogue and cooperation.

So how can economics curricula be reformed or even redesigned in a way that they will meet the four dimensions set out in this research? To do this, a critical look at the structure of the curricula is needed – the outlook that lies at their foundation. We will need to ask ourselves the fundamental question: what are we preparing these young people for? In this section, we will discuss the changes that we deem vital, and sketch out first steps towards them. We will first set out a few specific ideas targeted at the four pillars of a good economics curriculum, and end with recommendations targeted specifically at students, faculty, deans, and government.

1.       Training in research methods that would equip us well for work as a professional economist would include training in qualitative research methods, e.g. interview techniques and qualitative field research, and would include a broader and more open approach to research design.

2.       To effectively use theory, students require systematic exposure to a variety of theoretical approaches. The size of any individual’s intellectual toolbox is subject to constraints, but we feel that it should also contain a catalogue: students need to get an overview of what other approaches are out there. Nor should theories be taught in isolation; we need to learn to compare and contrast various theoretical approaches, and to apply them in combination. Key insights into the economy from neighbouring disciplines also form a necessary part of the education of any student of the economy.

3.       A real-world perspective on economics requires that we regularly leave the theoretical neatness of the classroom and step outside ‘into the real economy’. Students should consider real economic phenomena in depth, not just as examples to illustrate theory.

4.       To become critical, open-minded and reflective thinkers, students should not learn to blindly reproduce. Rather, we should learn to question our own ideas and assumptions, to contrast theories with one another, and to make and counter compelling arguments.

So what can each of us do, to bring our economics education to a higher plane?

Students, be critical of what you are learning. Do not just ask: “is this part of our exam?” Ask: “does this reflect the real world?”, “What are we missing in this approach?”. Is your professor throwing out a one-sided and outmoded tunnel vision story about “how economists think”? Talk to him and his colleagues about it (these materials are helpful), and address it through the programme committee. Organize a reading group or an event. If you want, you can get affiliated with the Rethinking Economics network and benefit from the experience, contacts and resources of a large network of similar-minded student groups worldwide.

Teachers, please realise why your students are in that lecture room. 97% of us are not there to become academic economists. We are there to better understand the economy, by any means necessary. So bring the reality into your classroom! Start lectures with today’s newspaper, ask guest speakers from the field. Stimulate open and associative thinking, bring in literature and guest speakers from other disciplines, and do not be afraid to point out the weaknesses of the theory you are teaching. Make sure that you are not just pushing through a textbook, be proud of your role as a teacher and use it. Kick-start discussions, play devil’s advocate. Open those minds.

Through education you reach far more people than through most academic papers. Yet today, teaching is underappreciated and under-rewarded. Often, the time allocated for teaching is not nearly enough (Ter Horst, 2013). Please speak out about this. Challenge that status quo, with the students as your allies.

Deans and program directors, make sure that your faculty are free to spend enough time on teaching rather than research. If this is hard to do, fight for your teachers and students, and make them aware of the pressures you’re facing, to enlist their support. Moreover, pay attention to economic education publicly; organize a seminar or conference on what economics students should learn to fulfil their crucial social roles later on. And please ask yourself this: how is our program built? Was it created through a negotiation process about whose sub-discipline is more important? Or is it carefully designed, based on the realization that most students are not there to become academics, but to learn to think about the economy? Finally, do not hesitate to be different from other universities. For instance, the economics program at Wageningen University emphasizes real world economics, whereas Utrecht University’s program focuses on multidisciplinarity. Variety in the focus of bachelor programs makes Dutch economics education stronger, not weaker.

Government, look at the distribution structure of research money. Does this encourage broad and interdisciplinary thinking, or scoring on the square millimetre? Because this also has an effect on the teaching academics do. And look at how you finance education. Are universities stimulated to offer their faculty career options focused on education? That is an effective way to take care of passionate teachers, who are not pre-occupied with the competitive struggle to publish in narrow sub-fields, but who can fully devote their efforts to educating the broad-thinking economists of the future. We suggest following the example of the British and French governments, and conducting an in-depth review of the questions raised in this report: is society well served by the way academic education in economics is currently set up, and if not, what policy measures could be taken to produce more robust and relevant programs?

Climate change, ageing, inequality, migration; these are the questions that will determine the future of our society. Economics plays a central role in them. This means that thorough, broad economics programs are one of the best ways to invest in the future of our society. Let’s build such programs, together.

 

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