Cahal Moran – The student movement for pluralistic economics five years on

Five years have passed since students at the Economics Department of The University of Manchester began questioning the relevance of their curriculum. Cahal Moran evaluates the progress made.

Cahal Moran is co-author of the book The Econocracy – The perils of leaving economics to the experts. He is currently a PhD economics student at The University of Manchester.

It has been 10 years since the beginning of the financial crisis, and 5 years since economics students across world started to question the role of economic ideas in producing the crisis. In Manchester, the Post-Crash Economics Society (PCES) emerged as students became frustrated by the overly abstract nature of our education and its inability to offer a coherent understanding of what happened or offer any perspective on resolutions.

Although many contemporary economic issues – austerity, debt overhang, flatlining productivity, a housing crisis, and stagnant wages – are arguably related to the financial crisis, it seems discussions of it have receded into memory only to be replaced with talk of Brexit and the current President of the United States. It may therefore be expected that the student movement to reform the teaching of economics would be gradually fading away. In fact, the opposite is true.

The financial crisis was merely one example of the dangers of a group of experts who believe in one set of ideas – as did government, central bank and financial sector economists who were blinded to systemic risk by an overreliance on their mathematical models. The mission to reform the economics education has consequently expanded beyond a focus on understanding the roots and solutions to the financial crisis, and towards including other neglected issues such as inequality, the environment, and immigration. But most importantly, a new rallying call has also emerged for the student movement: democratising economics.

The rejection of economic expertise during Brexit showed that we need to change the relationship between economic experts and the public. This requires public education courses, a new outlook on the role of economists, and ensuring major institutions like the Bank of England are more accountable to the citizens they serve.

To achieve this mammoth task, Post-Crash Economics is standing alongside other student groups around the world. Rethinking Economics, which acts as an umbrella organisations for these groups, bolsters our individual efforts and channels our campaign into a collective voice.

Sustaining the movement are the ongoing establishment of new student groups, with recent years seeing students at Durham, Bristol and Oxford – not to mention in Uganda and Chile – assembling and adding to the list of major universities with student societies committed to reforming economics education.

Even though the movement is growing, our success in changing academic economics itself has been limited. In Manchester the department is arguably less pluralist than when we started, with lecturer Devrim Yilmaz – a post-Keynesian – having left in 2014. New curriculum projects such as the CORE textbook, though promising in some areas, are ultimately at odds with our message about pluralism. Most key economics modules remain focused on abstract and repetitive mathematics. One new module on the economics of public policy, taught by Diane Coyle, deserves mention for being one of the only essay based economics modules that require real world knowledge and critical thinking to pass.

There are also some promising signs from outside the academe. Andy Haldane, the chief economist of the Bank of England, wrote the foreword to PCES’ 2014 report and also to our new book The Econocracy: on the perils of leaving economics to the experts. Since then Haldane seems to have taken our message to new heights, calling for a transition away from outdated models and engaging with the public on interest rate setting. Organisations such as the RSA have started to engage in public forums about economic policy, while the ESRC recently launched funding for a project entitled Rethinking Macroeconomics.

Furthermore, many employers – including the Bank of England and Government Economic Service – have complained that economics graduates lack real world skills after spending too much time dealing in abstract theory. An ex-Goldman Sachs executive told us that he always had to spend a year reteaching economics graduates so that they could handle real world problems. At an RES event in Manchester a couple of years ago an employers’ representative actually endorsed a pluralistic approach to economics, wanting students to have a broad knowledge so they could tell which theory was best suited to the problem at hand. Curriculum reform would directly benefit those students who want to go on to work for the biggest economic institutions, and given the important nature of these institutions would also benefit society as a whole.

Local groups such as PCES Manchester continue to push for changes to the curriculum and to organise economic events. We are currently campaigning to get a module on the economics of inequality put on the curriculum at Manchester, while our new event series ‘Cakeonomics’ starts this semester. Our first Cakeonomics will have two talks on inequality to fit with the theme of the campaign (plus cake), while our second event will be on Uber and the so-called ‘sharing economy’.

In the future we hope to see an economics curriculum which tackles pressing issues such as financial crises head on, teaching students facts about an issue and going on to show how different theories can help us to understand them. This was the approach of the highly popular Bubbles, Panics and Crashes module taught by Dr Yilmaz as a voluntary evening class in 2014, which shows that it can be done!

We would also like to see more emphasis on communication so that graduates are better able to communicate what they know about economics to a general audience. This would help to re-establish trust between economic experts and the public. Public education courses and projects which engage with economic issues in the local community would be a positive step forward in this regard.

Here at Manchester, PCES are still going strong after several years. We like to think that we have established a good relationship with many economists in the department, and the events we host continue to attract substantial audiences. Although our campaign has not been directly successful in getting any new modules put on the curriculum, we believe we have influenced the department’s decisions as they have restructured economics, and hope this our inequality module will become a clear example of successful campaigning in the future.

Please see the book review of The Econocracy – The perils of leaving economics to the experts in BRAVE NEW EUROPE


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