Boom Bust Boom Bust

We are a group of economics students who started a campaign to reform undergraduate economics education in 2013. Along the way we realised, just how important economics is. Nearly 6 out of 10 unemployed young people polled said anxiety had stopped them from sleeping…

Now, two years later, the Post Crash Economics Society (PCES) has held its first (un) conference in Manchester. Students across universities in London are campaigning against ruinous levels of fees and in Montreal there is a movement for a new printemps érable, a Maple Spring in the tradition of the Canadian student protests of 2012. With years of negligible economic growth the new norm, the graduate premium, which justified high fee levels as an investment against high lifetime earnings, is the preserve of a favoured few. These and similar groups of students are arguing for a different model of higher education, and for new approaches to the curriculum. It’s important to listen to what they have to say.

PCES was inspired by a 2011 conference at the Bank of England (hardly a subversive organization). The purpose of the conference was to discuss whether the ways in which economics is taught at universities is fit for purpose in the light of the 2007 financial crash. This seems a fair enough question, given that economists across the world failed to anticipate the biggest financial disaster in most of our lifetimes. As the Manchester students put it: “we were intrigued and excited to hear about this event. The economics we were learning seemed separate from the economic reality that the world was facing, and devoid from the crisis that had made many of us interested in economics to begin with”.

Since then, PCES has developed an augmented curriculum, trialled as a voluntary course with an impressive range of guest lecturers – “Bubbles, Panics and Crashes”. They have produced a major report – “Economics, Education and Unlearning” – which is well worth the read. Here is what Andrew Haldane, Executive Director for Financial Stability at the Bank of England, has to say in its introduction:

“The agenda set out in this Report is exciting and compelling. While not exhaustive, it begins to break open some of the economics discipline’s self-imposed shackles. Some of this is discovery of the new – for example, in the area of evolutionary, neuro and behavioural economics. But a large part is rediscovery of the old – or, in some cases, dusting down of the neglected – for example, in the area of institutional economics, economic history and money and banking”.

This week’s PCES (un) conference – Boom Bust Boom Bust – included a line up of speakers from other universities at which significant changes are being made to the Economics curriculum. In this, students are insisting on being recognized as active agents in their learning. In turn, this should shake away assumptions that the curriculum is a passive and self-evident framework for administering teaching.

Meanwhile, students at the London School of Economics had occupied a building and declared for the Free University of London. Here is Harry Blain, of openDemocracy:

“On March 18, I was surprised to see the usual posters on entrepreneurship and careers in finance displaced by the simple message: ‘Our Turn to Talk.’ Hanging from the LSE old building – often the spot where we take photos with our parents, ensuring we get the school’s logo in the background – was the banner, ‘Occupy LSE.’ At its core, this is a movement about redefining the principles that drive our education, captured in the rallying cry ‘University is not a factory!’ … Education is not about churning out obedient citizens, ready-made for a career in an economy designed by distant corporate and political interests. In any case, such careers prove elusive for many graduates today. The reality, instead, is ‘overqualified and underemployed’: casual, low-paid, often unstable work – with a mountain of debt.”

And in Montreal there are continuing demonstrations against the Quebec government’s cutbacks in education funding and insistence on the now tired and discredited model of a high fee, personal gain motivation for university education. Whether this develops into a re-run of Canada’s 2012 student movement remains to be seen. What is clear is the misfit between a government policy that seeks continuing fee rises that are significantly in excess of the rate of a rate of return that is conceptualized only in terms of private benefit.

On of the basic aims of higher education must be to achieve forms of learning that are interactive, seeking that magic combination of experience, knowledge and expertise that provides for a new and informed view of the world. When older ways are discredited, it’s time to listen carefully and to build a new consensus. Harry Blain:

Stand with us. Or, at the very least, listen to us, because the Free University of London is not just a physical space, but an angry and passionate collective voice – one that won’t be fading away

**
Boom Bust Boom Bust: Why Economics is for Everyone. Manchester, 31 March to 2 April 2015. http://boombustboombust.com/

Post-Crash Economics Society (2014), Economics, Education and Unlearning: Economics Education at the University of Manchester. Manchester. Available at http://www.post-crasheconomics.com/economics-education-and-unlearning/

Harry Blain. “”Our turn to talk”: why we should listen to Occupy LSE”. 30 March 2015. Our Kingdom: https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/harry-blain/our-turn-to-talk-why-we-should-listen-to-occupy-lse

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