The Economics Network

Improving economics teaching and learning for over 20 years

1. Introduction

Remarkably, economics teaching has become newsworthy. In the UK, for example, BBC Radio 4 and The Guardian have charted the debate over the design of economics curricula.This wide interest is probably driven by economic events - principally the Global Financial Crisis - but also concerns about inter alia austerity policy, the Eurozone, and climate change. Films such as Inside Job, The Big Short and Boom Bust Boom have sparked curiosity about economics.

Employers, too, have complained that economics curricula may not prepare students for careers as economists (or elsewhere). In a survey commissioned by the Economics Network, O’Doherty et al (2007) report, surprisingly, that employers find that graduates could not apply theory to the real world, solve complex problems or be objective. Most strikingly, employers claimed that economics graduates could not engage in abstraction: only 41.7% of graduates were judged as being excellent or strong at this. This concern about employability, among others, led some to ask ‘what’s the use of economics?’ (see Coyle, 2012).

The public and media interest builds on concerns from within the economics community itself. Even from within the ‘mainstream’ of economics, it was recognised that the remarkable uniformity across undergraduate economics programmes did not reflect the state of contemporary economics. Becker (2004) lamented that the undergraduate curriculum had lagged economic research. The CORE Project is a major response to this failure. CORE includes newer topics, principally game theory and behavioural economics. CORE also responds to calls for greater awareness of the ‘real world’ by presenting students with data. Its proponents believe that in doing this, CORE also helps students develop critical thinking, by teaching them to demand evidence to settle questions. This approach also introduces greater uncertainty, which may also serve to answer critics who allege that economics is guilty of hubris (Fourcade, et al, 2015).

Within economics there has also been an appeal for greater pluralism in economics teaching. This call has sometimes come from heretical mainstreamers or experts in economic methodology: for example Hodgson, et al (1992) did so in the American Economic Review. Further there is a constituency of economists who may regard themselves as ‘heterodox’, who campaign for pluralism; but moreover argue that space in the curriculum must be allowed for alternative economics traditions inter alia Marxism, Institutionalism (associated with the work of Veblen), Post Keynesianism, and Feminist economics. These economists complain that mainstream economics has become intolerant of difference and focused on key economic concepts (such as methodological individualism and equilibrium) or methods (mathematical modelling and econometrics) to the exclusion of others (Lawson 2013).

These economists’ calls for pluralism have been more pronounced recently, and embodied in a number of initiatives; inter alia, a special issue on pluralism in the IREE (2009) and the formation of Reteaching Economics, a group of early career scholars campaigning for greater pluralism. Robert Skidelsky has been commissioned by INET to develop a pair of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) – one on history and philosophy of economics, another on ‘unsettled questions’ – material often omitted from conventional programmes. These add to the range of courses delivering heterodoxy and pluralism around the world.

Another driver of these new programmes is student demands for greater pluralism. These calls are not new. Figure 1 below reports responses from an Economics Network student survey from 2002; these were contemporaneous with calls from the Post-Autistic Economics Network (see Fullbrook, 2003) for greater pluralism of theory and method. Recently, though, these calls have been amplified greatly by such groups as the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics, the Post-Crash Economics Society, and Rethinking Economics. Earle, et al (2016) solidify these calls within an overarching critique of economics.

Figure 1: Undergraduate students who want a more heterodox experience

  • ‘The basic problem is that the vast majority of economics in [the course] is orthodox/mainstream. Students aren't offered alternative approaches developed by Post-Keynesians, institutionalists and Marxists. But the problem seems to be the same elsewhere: 95 per cent of the economics taught in higher education institutions is mainstream.’
  • ‘More of historical account of the development ideas I believe would be beneficial to understanding why we believe the ideas we do today, what was wrong (why they failed/are no longer used) with ideas of yesterday, e.g. going from the Gold Standard to Keynesianism to Thatcherism to today.’
  • ‘I would like to see more empirical evidence used in lectures to support or maybe contradict the economic models. This would help relate what can be some very abstract ideas to the real world. The few times this has happened I have found it very interesting.’
  • ‘More focus on non-orthodox economics rather than just neo-classical to give a broader perspective.’

Students’ responses to the question: Identify one or two aspects of your degree course that could be improved and say why (Economics LTSN Student Survey Report 2002).

In the light of this critique this chapter examines the rationale and scope for teaching heterodox economics, and pluralism. We now consider working definitions of heterodox economics and pluralism, a summary of the arguments for teaching them, and an introduction to strategies for doing so.