Ever since the world was engulfed by the most severe financial and economic crisis since the Great Depression of the early 1930s interest in Economics has soared. People have been seeking to understand what went so badly wrong, why this happened and, looking ahead, how this sorry state of affairs could best be remedied in order to deliver better-functioning and more equitable economies in the future. Such enthusiasm is exemplified by the greatly enhanced popularity of A-level Economics, together with a very marked increase in the number of those applying to read Economics at degree level. A substantial rise in generalised appetite for Economics has also been apparent –especially manifest in the popular success of such innovations as the annual Bristol Festival of Economics and similar events launched elsewhere.
The 2007-09 crisis revealed, however, that much of what was being taught as Economics at British universities was clearly deficient, seeming abstract, rarefied and “other-worldly” and having precious little to contribute to addressing contemporary challenges. Her Majesty the Queen, at the London School of Economics in November 2008, famously questioned why nobody had seen the financial crisis coming –and came away, as did so many, frustrated by the sheer inadequacy of the response afforded by the conventional academic wisdom.
Such frustration led to a welcome development in February 2012 when a conference was convened at the Bank of England which took as its theme “Teaching Economics after the Crisis”. Importantly, the scale of the discontent with the existing state of play revealed at this gathering led to establishment of a working group – on which the Society of Business Economists was represented – charged with the task of devising concrete recommendations for changes in the way Economics was taught to undergraduates at British universities(1).
As part of its contribution to this project the Society of Business Economists submitted an online questionnaire to its members, asking which knowledge and skills on the part of newly-minted Economics graduates they –as employers and practitioners –most valued and, also, where deficiencies were most apparent.
The results of this survey were reported in The Business Economist in early 2013 (2) and informed the working party’s report – in which the key points of the survey were incorporated, in summary form (3). Overall, the survey results indicated a widespread dissatisfaction on the part of economic practitioners’ with the “standard” Economics curriculum.
Our survey results provoked widespread interest in universities and gave valuable support to blossoming initiatives in various universities to make Economics under-graduate syllabi more “fit for purpose”. The survey findings also helped inform the grass-roots student campaigns for curriculum reform –such as that of Rethinking Economics – where participants were (pleasantly) surprised to learn that economic practitioners were a similar wave-length.
Importantly, what the Society of Business Economists had to say on this critical subject received especial traction when the Society was invited in 2014 by the Quality Assurance Agency to participate in its periodic “benchmarking” exercise with regard to the UK Economics degree (the last re-assessment had taken place in 2006). Two employers’ representatives ( and SBE members) – Andy Ross and Ian Harwood – sat on this committee, and exerted significant influence upon the eventual report (4) in terms both of its general tenor and, also, by means of the following, very specific section of the committee’s report:
“From the employers’ perspective, the ideal Economics graduate should be well-versed in economic theory, both micro and macro; possess highly-developed analytical skills; be able to apply economic concepts to practical, “real world” issues, within the context of historically and internationally-comparative experience; be technically proficient in data analysis and knowledgeable about data sources. It is, in addition, very important that Economics graduates should have excellent communication skills, in particular the ability to explain economic ideas clearly to non-economists.”
Prior to its release in July 2015 this QAA report was accepted by the heads of all the Economics departments in the UK. It should, as a consequence, materially influence the development of the future UK Economics curriculum.
One would have to be very optimistic, though, to expect change to be effected quickly throughout British universities. Nonetheless, material changes are occurring – as was highlighted very recently in Peter Day’s excellent “Economic Rebellion” BBC Radio programme (5) – which is highly recommended listening.
(1) Are Graduate Economists Fit for Purpose? http://www.res.org.uk/view/article5Apr12Correspondence.html
(2) Business Economist, vol 44 No 1 2013
(3) Teaching Economics after the Crisis: Report of the Steering Group http://www.res.org.uk/view/article7Apr13Features.html
(4)QAA Subject Benchmark Statement, July 2015 http://www.qaa.ac.uk/en/Publications/Documents/SBS-Economics-15.pdf
(5) “Economic Rebellion” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-35462879. You can hear Ian Harwood in the BBC Global Business programme “Economic Rebellion”. Presented by Peter Day on the World Service, the programme focuses upon the controversial subject of Economics curriculum reform at UK universities. It is due to be broadcast again on Radio 4, 8.30pm on 31st March http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b074zgr2 and again on Sunday 3rd April at 9.30pm http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b074zgr2/broadcasts. You can listen now by clicking on the link below.