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4.3 'Economic bricolage' – building an economic case from diverse fragments

Subsequent to student groups undertaking the 'mock' presentation above, they then move on to class presentations that illustrate economic theory through the use of real case studies. One example is using the current shortage of staff car parking spaces at Glasgow Caledonian to illustrate demand and supply. (See http://cbs3.gcal.ac.uk/eco/website/EME/EMECarParkProject.html).

Essentially, there are approximately 100 places for 1,500 staff, with a campus-wide ballot for permits which, if successfully obtained, cost approximately £600.

On choosing this topic, the student group is asked to construct a market diagram using figures supplied on the university website above. These figures indicate the number of spaces, the approximate number of staff, the ballot details and price, and also refer to actual questionnaire responses from staff detailing facts such as the maximum price they would be willing to pay to use the car park. The figures (with a little thought) allow them to construct relevant demand curves by constructing the points at which the demand curve would cross each axis. The question is very contemporary given the on-going construction work at the university, of which the students are very much aware. This has cut the number of spaces available for parking, which allows us to ask the students to construct two scenarios: 'before construction work' and 'now'. The issue of the supply curve is also challenging, given that it is totally inelastic in both snapshots, requiring thoughtful interpretation of textbooks which often illustrate only upward sloping examples.

Once students have constructed the necessary diagrams, they are asked to consider the effect of external changes such as the imposition of congestion charges. They are also asked to consider the issue of 'scarcity' in a broader context by looking at questions of opportunity cost and also alternative uses of the car parking spaces.

Among the websites referenced are those of neighbouring car parks, the local bus companies, a 'sustainable transport site' and Friends of the Earth Scotland. They are, of course, asked to make use of the theory in their economic textbook. Finally, a short tongue-in-cheek video (3 minutes) made by economics staff, looking at congestion, is also made available on disc or downloadable from the Web. This mixture of paper, up-to-date internet and multimedia resources has proven in practice to be very popular with the students. A series of similar presentations forms part of every student's 'coursework' element, the follow-up written report of which is formally assessed. Student reactions from the reports are shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5 Extracts from written group reports

Extract 1

'In our presentation, we got the figures correct for demand but the supply curve was impossible until we discussed a totally inelastic one in class. The books don't always cover all the examples from real life, so you have to think.'

Extract 2

'The Friends of the Earth website made it clear that our car park was not necessary since we had many alternatives available. The opportunity cost of the car park could have been green spaces in the university to allow the students to de-stress. This would allow rich lecturers to de-stress as well, as they wouldn't have to worry about the cost of running expensive cars.'

Extract 3

'The hardest bit of the presentation was explaining what happened when the university fixed the price for entry. This meant that there wasn't a market equilibrium. It had been fixed by the authorities.'
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4.2 Making the leap from text-based study to Web-based study
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5.1 Case study 1: Using the Web to teach economics: a personal reflection