Why study economics?

Republished from The Australian, by John Lodewijks, University of Western Sydney

WHY does a case for economics need to be made in the first place? Surely economics is the foundation discipline for studies in business, finance, accounting and related fields. Acknowledged as the queen of the social sciences, the scientific community recognises the value of the discipline with the award of Nobel Prizes.

Nevertheless, the study of economics is under threat. In the high schools, fewer and fewer students are taking economics in favour of more narrowly focused business studies. In the universities, bachelor of economics degrees are being jettisoned, and departments closed in many non Group of Eight institutions. Even there some are being turfed out of business faculties and into arts.

Academically weak students are voting with their feet when faced with the option of choosing between challenging, analytical courses or descriptive, narrow courses with little intellectual challenge. That is the nation’s loss.

John Quiggin said it best and I paraphrase – a tertiary institution that offers a business degree without economics is not a real university, any more than one that that fails to offer arts or science degrees. Offering students supposedly vocational degrees with no real disciplinary foundation is a cruel fraud and a dereliction of educational duty.

A cornerstone of a democratic society is economic literacy. Some of the toughest issues confronting society are rapid structural, technological and demographic change, macroeconomic turbulence, global warming, and growing income inequality; therefore some of our biggest challenges will be to design tax, health, welfare and education systems, along with competition and industrial laws that balance equity and efficiency, and robust macroeconomic policies for an integrated world economy.

The performance of our economy impacts on the availability of jobs, mortgage interest rates, the value of the Australian dollar, the prices we pay in the supermarket and our overall standard of living. As such, economic performance affects everyone. We desperately need economically literate citizens that understand these public policy challenges.

Students should learn and graduate with the capacity to participate actively and responsibly in a diverse and changing world. It is the contestable nature of the economics discipline that makes it such a fascinating area of study. For students who care about how the world works, economics should be one of the most relevant and exciting courses they study. Yet many students view economics as abstract theory and fail to understand how it relates to actual decisions made by firms, consumers and governments. Partly it is our fault. We should focus more on the practical application of economic models, develop more fully basic data analysis skills and communicate our ideas better to non-economists and those students not pursuing economics majors.

Our curricula may be becoming too narrow and front-loaded with technique at the expense of the generic skills so valued by employers related to analytical reasoning skills and critical thinking. An understanding of economic history and the history of economic ideas may temper a tendency to arrogance and make us more open to alternative approaches. Yet despite our limitations, the pendulum has swung far beyond what is healthy and essential for the well-being of our economy and society. The continuing decline of economics education has profound consequences. It should be reversed.

4 thoughts on “Why study economics?”

  1. Great article John.

    Do you have any ideas about how we can reverse this worrying trend? I know that the new national curriculum includes economics studies from Year 7 onwards (but its only 30 minutes per week).

  2. Dean,

    I am on the ACARA Advisory Committee that has developed the new national curriculum. The study of economics and business will be required for all Australian school students from years 5-8 and an elective from years 9-10 and then 11-12. This is an exciting opportunityto teach students about the nature of economics and business decision-making and its role in creating a prosperous, sustainable and equitable economy for all Australians. You are right that we don’t have much time to spend on this in a crowded teaching space – 20 hours in the earlier years and 40 hours in years 9-10 – but if it is done well and in an engaging way, we have some opportunity to reverse the trend away from economics.

    • That is fantastic news. Do you know when that is going to be implemented (I heard they are rolling out the system as we speak)?

      I really believe that the core insights of economics will draw high school students into the discipline. That is why so many students enjoy 1st year at university. They seem to get scared away by the algebra that starts to become more prevalent from second year onwards…

  3. Implementation lies with State educational authorities. In some jurisdictions they have been experimenting with the new curriculum already and are just waiting for it to be finalized (by the end of this year) to roll it out fully. In other States they may try to incorporate the content of the new curriculum into their existing offerings. For example, NSW has a very popular Commerce course at High Schools and they may keep it and just add in any material from the new curriculum that they do not presently cover. Other States may need more persuading and only go along kicking and screaming! To get some idea of the diverse views held on this subject see Judith Sloan’s article “National curriculum mired in half-baked fads”
    in The Australian, October 12, 2013. So it may be an uphill battle to get everybody fully on side on this initiative.

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