Rock and roll, I gave you the best years of my life

Alex Millmow


February 23rd, 2015

How much has an economics degree evolved over the years? Academic Alex Millmow offers incoming students an account of his experience.

There is a classic Australian hit song from 1973 calledRock & Roll, I gave you the best years of my life. Kevin Johnson was the artist. You can see it on Youtube. I some times like to invert it and call it ‘Economics, I gave you the best years of my life’. Upon reflection I basically did.

Forty years ago I began my university education in economics in March 1975. I had enrolled in the B.Ec. at Monash. I was part of the B.Ec generation. I remember it vividly just like you too will remember your first year at university. I could not believe my luck that I had got into Monash and that I did not have to pay a red cent towards my degree. Today you face the prospect of sharing in only half that luck; the Australian government will basically fund half your education. When I was at Monash the economists there were already cottoning on to the idea that free tertiary education was basically becoming a form of middle class welfare. It took until 1989 before the federal government created HECS. Here we see how the power of economic ideas eventually percolates down to change policy. What I did at Monash was pure economics though I also did a major in economic history. I was enrolled in what was called the ECOPS faculty; that’s ECOPS for economics and politics. The Dean at the time had modelled the faculty upon the Cambridge Faculty of Economics and Politics. The idea of doing politics and arts subjects with economics is no longer in vogue.

At the time there was no such thing as business schools. In fact they used to say that studying business or anything commercial was for dummies. Today business schools are triumphant and have taken over commerce faculties. In some business schools economics has been banished from the offerings even though much of the business disciplines is a version of dumbed-down balkanised economics.

Monash in the mid seventies was a leading economics department even though they did not have the metrics they have now. In 1975 two of the mega stars of the profession came a-visiting. Joan Robinson of Cambridge University spent half a semester there and Milton Friedman visited one afternoon in April flouting the new creed of Monetarism as the cure-all for persistent inflation. Friedman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Science the year after.

At the time the great theoretical battle ground was macroeconomics and the battle royal between Keynesianism and Monetarism. Stagflation stalked Australia. Economics degree enrolments had gone through the roof as young minds wanted to find out what went wrong with modern capitalism. Gosh, they were heady days.

At the time students had to do only a modest degree of introductory econometrics. The courses in economic theory, including macroeconomics and macroeconomics could be done without total resort to mathematics. That is, doing economics in a literary sense was a possibility. There were specialised streams of micro and macro for the mathematically inclined. Today doing economics requires a high even formidable degree of mathematical competence. Frankly I do not think I could cope doing economics now.

While it was only half a life time ago the teaching style, compared to today, was the old reliable of chalk and talk. One could enjoy different lecturing styles from the staff. I would look up their credentials marvelling that many of them had postgraduate degrees from America or Britain. I used to tape some lectures if the lecturer spoke too fast, it was fairly boring transcribing them. Once the lecture was uttered that was it; it was gone forever. It was pretty rare to have lectures recorded then. The semesters were 13 weeks long with breaks in between. What struck me about Monash was the smorgasbord of electives one could choose from. There was also the complete anonymity and solitude if you wanted it; for some university was a big impersonal place. I would encourage you against being a lone eagle; leave the soul searching for later. So… was it worth it?  My word it was! Being an economist has given me a quality life a fulfilling career with an enduring purpose. I found my niche in academe rather than in the public service. I never contemplated the private sector … but that’s just me!


Alex Millmow teaches economics at Federation University, Ballarat.

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

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