Sunday, 14 December 2014

University of Greenwich revises its economics programmes to enhance pluralism and real world economics

Received from Sara Gorgoni, University of Greenwich, Department of International Business and Economics, Programme Leader

The 24th of November was an important day for the economists at the University of Greenwich, when four programmes in economics offered by the Department of International Business and Economics - BSc (Hons) Economics, BSc (Hons) Economics with Banking, BA (Hons) Business Economics and BA (Hons) Economics with Language - were successfully reviewed. Every day all over the country undergraduate programmes get reviewed and revalidated, so normally this is not something worth making too much fuss about. But this time is different! Our revised programmes are different. Why so, you may ask? 

The revised programmes were commended for “the enthusiasm and development of new material by the teaching team, showing a flexible and responsive approach to the current environment, as well as taking a leading role in the sector”. That is, they were praised for leading changes in the way economics is taught. The last seven years have not been easy for the global economy as well as the teaching of economics. The recent financial crisis and the Great Recession have led many economists, non-economists and students in economics to question the state of the discipline, wondering to what extent it provides the necessary tools to interpret the complex world we live in, signalling a deep dissatisfaction with economists’ ability to provide solutions to real world problems. Employers have recognised that the economics graduates that the standard curriculum generates are not equipped with the skills that the real world requires. Likewise, students themselves have recognised that the tools and theories they learn don’t enable them to make sense of the world they live in, let alone to address and solve real world problems. The need for a pluralistic approach to the teaching of economics, the need to teach real world economics that better helps to understand and act in the world we live in, the urgency to integrate some of the burning issues of our time such as ecological sustainability to the curriculum all emerged from the debate as crucial aspects. We are grateful to Rethinking Economics, International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics, and Post-Crash Economics Societies in Manchester and elsewhere for stimulating our debate. 

The reason the revalidation of the economics programmes at the University of Greenwich is special is that it constitutes one of the first institutional responses to current pressures from students, faculty, employers and policy makers to produce more ‘world-ready’ graduates. In redesigning our economics programmes we – the economics programmes team - have decided to:

- Address socially relevant economic questions in all core economic courses by adopting a historical and pluralistic perspective right from the start and throughout the programme. 

- Add two new compulsory courses -Economic History in the first year and History of Economic Thought in the second year, and an optional course Political Economy of International Development and Finance in the third year.

- Integrate the concept of environmental and social sustainability –– in the teaching of economics in all courses, as well as provide specific courses such as Environmental Economics and Environmental Regulation and Business Ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility. 

- Eliminate from the curriculum those topics that tend to be taught by default just because they appear on standard economics textbooks rather than because they are recognised as truly useful in understanding how economies really work. 

In particular, the rationale for the introduction of Economic History and History of Economic Thought courses is that students should be made aware of what has happened in the sphere of economics, more or less in the order that it happened. This will help them place the economic ideas and theories they come across in all courses into an historical context, to form their own opinion by reading the original texts, e.g. by Smith, Ricardo, Marx, Schumpeter, and Keynes, and hopefully develop an understanding of economics as the result of a dynamic social process including controversy, conflict, and social change. 

However, we do not isolate the development of a pluralistic perspective to only a few courses, but rather integrate it in all our courses by approaching real world problems from the perspective of different theories, both old and contemporary, comparing, contrasting, or at times synthesising them. This should help the students to develop a critical perspective towards current economic theories and evolving economic events, and develop an understanding about the limitations of theories and models (for example, what happens out of equilibrium), and think more widely about the historical, institutional and political context of economic behaviour and policies. The work of a diverse body of research active lecturers informs our teaching. 

Our understanding of pluralism does not only include different schools of thought and disciplines, but also methodologies. Our new programmes encourage going beyond Quantitative Methods.  We encourage the use of case studies, qualitative research methods, as well as a multitude of different quantitative methods including but not limited to econometrics. E.g. we pride ourselves for having the biggest research centre in Social Network Analysis (SNA) in Europe, and I, among others, use the approach and methodology of SNA in teaching economics. 

The ability to think critically also requires the ability to analyse empirical evidence, and this is why we have restructured our Quantitative Methods courses to strengthen students’ ability to identify, access and use relevant data sources to analyse current economic problems and form an independent opinion in the public debate, and to be critical about the way data is supplied and used. Finally, we care about developing the ability of our students to communicate economic ideas clearly and in a non-technical fashion to a wide variety of audiences, because economics should not be a cryptic language accessible only to an elite group of economists, but rather belong to the society. 

All in all we have tried to contribute towards a better teaching, learning and use of economics, and we hope to see more of this in the future, around the country and the world.