Transforming economics education

Lessons from the Radboud Hub at the Dutch Week of the Economics Education

Why do we need to change economics education? 


“The world is beginning to realise the many ways in which mainstream economic thought has been failing our societies. The climate crisis, pandemics, and growing global inequality demonstrate the need for change. The problem we face is the total dominance of one way of teaching, which promotes the marketization of society, leading to increased inequality, injustice, and significant harm to the natural world.’ This quote, on the front page of Rethinking Economics, summarizes a fundamental issue with the economics discipline and the way it is taught worldwide, from secondary to higher education. It has been pointed out by so many voices in economics and outside everywhere in the world, from students and lecturers. This issue also reflects a broader concern about the role of universities at large in teaching and researching sustainable challenges. As it is recognized in academia but also by the Radboud Center for Sustainability Challenges, “not changing the content, goals, and organization of our teaching and learning will leave our students empty-handed in the face of the global crises.” Coming back to the economics discipline, the OECD emphasized the need to rethink dominant approaches to economic policy-making, through new frameworks of economic theory and analysis, in its Beyond Growth report in 2020.


Is anything changing in university programmes? 


If we see some small-scale changes in some educational programmes, we are far from doing enough. In economics especially, internationally, mainstream economics are still largely dominant, when such frameworks have repeatedly shown their limits and, even further, the damage they have done and are still doing to humans and non-humans, as it has been shown extensively. If we zoom in on the Netherlands, we see in higher education how limited economics education is, according to a recent report from Rethinking Economics. Focusing on Bachelor programmes, the authors showed that the neoclassical approach takes up 86% of all theory course time, while 97% of methods course time is spent on quantitative research skills. The picture is better in some universities as in Utrecht Nijmegen, but still largely dominated but the same approach. Radboud is thus the most pluralist programme according to the report, with about 62% of the programme being dominated by Neoclassical economics, compared to 96% at the UvA or Wageningen. However, in reality, neoclassical economics is only a small part of a discipline that could be fundamentally pluralist, as illustrated by Exploring Economics (see figure), and by the multiplicity of tools and initiatives developed by many scholars. 


Joining forces for change


These questions were all at the heart of the Dutch Week of the Economics Education a few months ago, for its second edition. During this week, lecturers and teachers from the whole country can reflect, in activities organised in many different institutes, on rethinking the way we teach our discipline, by going beyond the ‘narrow economic approach to actors driven by self-interest and focused on wealth growth.’ Some institutes became hubs during this week, and Radboud was one of them, coordinated by myself with the support of the Economics and Business Economics department. As I said above, this department is a bit more advanced compared to other economics departments when it comes to pluralism in the Netherlands and is working around what we call ‘economics+’, meaning that the department looks at societal challenges from multiple perspectives, using insights from other disciplines, and considering the embeddedness of economic issues in societal ones. Becoming a hub was thus a good opportunity for our department. It was about sharing what we know but also learning from others, especially as we still have to improve a lot ourselves. 


Our Radboud Pluralism Day


During the Radboud day, we discussed transdisciplinary education with Sjors Witjes, the importance of the history of economics courses for pluralism with Ivan Boldyrev, and how to approach economics from a feminist perspective with Edith Kuiper. We learned about concrete experiences in using CORE Econ material and curricula design with Annika Johnson and Juan Pablo Castillo Bravo. Femke Schootstra and Tommaso Mondovi, representing Rethinking Economics NL, organized a round table with lecturers from different universities on objectivity in economics, the status of the discipline, and the implications for economics education. Finally, Esther-Mirjam Sent and Jolanda Suijker spent the afternoon with teachers in secondary education, to explore how to increase the interest of students in economics through pluralism as well as innovative didactics by using a mystery case in which different perspectives on economic reality are explored. 


Many ideas and insights were shared, and important lessons were learned. The first one is the need to communicate between different educational levels. It is important to understand each other constraints but also to be able to align what we teach students and how we teach them. The way the economic curriculum is organized in high schools in the Netherlands, focusing on specific answers to specific problems, does not represent the complexity of the discipline they will face when they arrive at the University. It is important for all of us to know how students are trained at all these levels to join forces and change the ways we teach economics. We need students to be ready for other approaches to make it work. Another lesson was about what is missing in the discipline currently, when it comes to understanding the history and background of the discipline and going beyond mainstream economics as a universal truth when you start to explore the political evolution of this discipline. It is also about integrating different approaches and voices (such as feminist approaches and voices from the Global South) in a discipline that does not consider justice or power relationships in its mainstream form. Finally, we can see the diversity of opinions when it comes to the idea of ‘value-free science’ for example, but also the need to open the discussion and continuously debate for our discipline to evolve.


The way forward


What do to know? First, we need to continue debating. There are many opinions and many ways to reshape the discipline, but it also requires growing the will for change. It is made even more difficult by the academic constraints and the current financial situation for universities in the Netherlands, as being innovative in education requires time and capacity. At individual levels, resources from CORE, Rethinking Economics (see links earlier) and the platform on which I am writing this piece can be useful to rethink the content and didactics of a course or a programme. Some overviews exist to show the evolution as we can see some changes, such as more and more courses in ecological economics worldwide for instance. A growing number of grants is targeting innovations in education. The time is also right. Many students and scholars aspire to an education that meets the challenges of today and realize the limitations of what current economics programmes have to offer. We cannot solve the wicked problems of our times by having more of the same, we need transformations. For this, we need to understand how we can scale up such transformations in the discipline, as the current situation is also related to the hierarchies in a discipline that is profoundly unbalanced. Part of what we need now is collaboration, being vocal, advocating for change, showing this growing mass of criticism and why this criticism is legitimate, and continuing organizing events such as the week of the economics education in the Netherlands and elsewhere for people to communicate and join forces.





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