Rethinking undergraduate economics education…

Profs Rahul De and Alex Thomas write in EPW on the topic.

They say that the focus on changing economics education (if at all) is on post-graduate levels. But the foundations are laid at undergraduate levels and that needs some attention too:

Worldwide, a concerted and systematic criticism of the way economics is taught began after the onslaught of the 2007 global financial crisis. In India, postgraduate economics education has received more attention than its undergraduate counterpart. After identifying some structural constraints of undergraduate education in India, a set of curricular and pedagogic recommendations to improve undergraduate economics education is explored.

An undergraduate program needs wider skills:

Undergraduate economics degrees have been oriented towards giving students skills to enter the job market and preparing them to undertake a postgraduate degree in the discipline. Therefore, the foundational economics courses in an undergraduate degree deal with microeconomics, macroeconomics, and quantitative economics. Most of the content in these courses falls within the neoclassical (or more accurately, marginalist) tradition in economics.

We believe that economics curriculum should become pluralist by including the teaching of schools of thought which fall outside the neoclassical cannon (Thomas 2016). Such a curriculum will enable students to engage more deeply with the fundamental questions and debates posed in the discipline and will demonstrate to the student that no single theory can fully explain a socio-economic phenomenon.

In most economics curricula, important concepts such as capitalism, development, and economic growth are taught without sufficiently incorporating the historical forces such as colonialism, wars, authoritarian rule, and crises that influence them. The contents of the foundational microeconomics and macroeconomics courses often ignore the historical processes and structural tendencies which shape the economy. Thus, there is an urgent need to reintroduce economic history in the economics curriculum in order to explain how colonialism, technological change, capitalism, and shifting sociopolitical dynamics created the modern economy.

Importantly, economics is mostly taught as a body of knowledge that has progressed linearly and without internal conflicts. There is an urgent need to include a course on the history of economic thought that will enable students to understand the major debates and developments that the discipline has gone through and the different trajectories that came out of it. This has the pedagogic value of inculcating a deep understanding about the discipline, the political contexts in which it evolved, and a nuanced appreciation of the inherent gaps and biases in the discipline.

The ability to understand and analyse data is a basic requirement for an economist. The process involves collecting, programming, visualising and analysing data. Currently, many undergraduate programmes treat data analysis as a separate course much like mathematical economics. To enable students to attain data proficiency, data analysis needs to be incorporated within their economic courses. For example, a course on the Indian economy can have a component on analysing trends in sectoral growth and consumption data over time, or a development course can be used to collect data from a local community.

We need better textbooks:

Foundational courses in economics are often taught through textbooks written by foreign authors (the notable ones being Mankiw, Varian, and Dornbusch and Fischer). Our students find the examples, case studies, and data used difficult to relate with and therefore it negatively affects their learning. There is an urgent need for “Indian” textbooks with examples and data from India. Moreover, relevant concepts such as informal labour and dual economy should be taught because they help us make sense of our surroundings. A structured engagement with the real economy through fieldwork assignments in their courses will prove beneficial. For example, when studying market competition, a teacher can send students to observe the dynamics of local vegetable markets and the teacher can discuss pricing strategies between Ola and Uber when teaching them oligopolistic competition.

We have textbooks written by Indian authors but they are hardly recommended. Both Professors and students have ivy-league

More focus on writing and less on math. It is amazing how all courses in economics come with the question: How good you are at math? So much so, that all that is needed is math skills and nothing else matters:

Writing plays an important role in the work of a professional economist—in both academia and the industry. Therefore, it is important to inculcate good writing habits in students through curricular means. Writing should be instituted as one of the learning objectives in all the economics courses. Students should be trained to write well—have a good structure and be able to make a convincing argument. It may be a useful exercise to get the students to read different kinds of economics writing and to identify their respective strengths and weaknesses. This will help students improve their writing skills.

Writing should also be made an integral part of the assessment structure. Assessments should be structured such that students have to explain graphs, diagrams, derivations, and calculations. Economics assessment should not be restricted to objective questions, because articulation, argumentation, and explanation are important skills required by an economist; these can be tested only by asking them to write essay-length answers.

Economics students need to be prepared to handle the quantitative component of the discipline. However, students in India come from diverse schooling systems and preparedness in mathematics. Some institutions tend to prescribe a minimum required marks in Class 12 mathematics for entering economics programmes; the logic for this is that good mathematical abilities imply good economics ability. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Keynes famously wrote about how Max Planck, the famous physicist, found it difficult to study economics. However, reducing the ability to do economics to mathematical ability can result in the exclusion of students with other academic strengths from economics programmes. The student’s interest in economic affairs and the ability to analyse the contemporary economy is perhaps a better indicator of their interest and ability. More importantly, economic programmes have institutional mechanisms to support students with a weak quantitative ability; this can be achieved through tutorial or remedial classes and/or by offering courses in basic mathematics and statistics.

Economics talks much about reform. It needs to reform itself first:

In summary, there is a strong mandate to rethink undergraduate economics education in India. Priority should be given to: understanding the learning transition students undergo from school to college, the provision of institutional support for students from diverse learning backgrounds, the organisation of workshops and forums to improve teachers capacity, and the creation of textbooks and resources (in both English and regional languages) to meet the contemporary needs of Indian students.

Colleges must have a say in curricular decisions. These decisions can neither be arbitrary nor casual; they must be founded on a transparent set of educational aims. We hope that the issues we presented in this article motivate similar conversations in the coming months and years. Such issues are critical and urgent because of the increasing inability of economics to understand and explain contemporary Indian realities.

One is hearing Azim Premji University (the authors are from this university) has taken steps and designed  their curriculum at undergrad level differently from others. Time will tell its impact on students and their learning.

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