Queues and panic, outside Northern Rock in 2007, was tangible evidence of a financial and economic crisis. I was convinced, at the time, economics was a discipline that attempted to solve social problems and help people. University economics nearly convinced me otherwise. With better information, which could be provided by a pluralist economics accreditation system, I would have chosen a broader course and been better prepared as a practicing economist.
When student fees rose in 2012 to £9000 a year, the condition was the quality of education would rise. Yet the student to teacher ratios rose, as did drop-out rates and – telling for economists – undergraduates were unable to explain the crisis of our time. 15 out of the 18 units I took within my degree had little ‘critical’ element to them – as defined by the survey conducted by Rethinking Economics (this ranked well amongst UK universities at the time!).
These courses often followed a trend: start with a neoclassical model and extend it to an exceptional circumstance that resembles a real-world application. This was a pedagogical monoculture. The reverse – taking a problem and considering an appropriate model or method – was devoid. To get my pluralist fix, I attended psychology lectures, and when seminars continued to use a singular methodology – I started my own ‘Rethinking Economics’society, to explore a liberal approach. The problem for prospective students, identified in the Econocracy, is that ‘knowing what you want [when choosing your degree] in not the same as being able to evaluate the quality of the course on offer’. I wasn’t in a position to understand that studying 19th-century statistics wasn’t appropriate for contemporary themes of interest: the rise of digital networks, interdependent financial risk, and complex environmental systems.
Now as a practicing economist, I’m having to learn from other disciplines. For instance, when presenting work on the UK property market, I jumped straight to the tools taught at University. I was then stumped when asked to use something different.
With lots of new data and advances in scientific methods, Economics needs to catch-up. And luckily it is – if you know where to look for it. Just some examples – The Bank of England is pioneering new Agent-Based Models and the Institute of New Economic Thinking research complex systems. As research reacts so are the courses on offer. With the new CORE, syllabus rolled out at more traditional Russel Group universities and more innovative courses emphasizing pluralist or critical approach. My old University– in the traditional camp – now states its approach is to ‘reconnect the study of economics with our experience of real-life’.
A wider choice may really be starting to emerge…This all matters – with high student fees and new methods to help economists solve pressing problems, we have a duty to enable students to be more discerning. We also need employers to be more discerning so they can understand how to recruit graduates with a wider range of skills and better critical abilities. This will enable better choices, higher levels of engagement, and greater value for money from higher education. For this reason, I wholly support a pluralist accreditation system that will help students understand what sort of curriculum they are going to get.