Economics in Italy and the UK: different systems, common problems (en)

17 luglio -

uni

 

Per leggere lo stesso articolo, in italiano, clicca qui

 

On the day before my Economic History exam, I went to my lecturer’s office with one question in mind: ‘Why is this subject not being taught to Economics students?’ After a long discussion on the benefits of integrating courses such as Economic History and Economics of Politics into the Economics degree, the conversation reached its climax. I told my lecturer that I believed economics students, not only in Bath but in the rest of the UK generally, were not being taught different views and perspectives within the subject. This, as I told her, hinders their development of a well-rounded and critical understanding of economics. After I saw her agreeing on most point I made, I simply asked: ‘Then why is the economics programme not being changed?’ Her answer was disconcerting: “Edwin, I agree with you, but unfortunately most of my colleagues don’t.”

 

Usually after an economic meltdown, there is a discussion on the validity of the dominating economic theories, with thinkers at the forefront proposing alternative ways of thinking that eventually permeate within lecture halls. After the 1927 Wall Street crash and subsequent ‘Great Depression’ it was J M Keynes who dominated the scene of reforming the ‘dismal science’. Today, it may have to be undergraduate students. Indeed, with such unwillingness on behalf of departments and lecturers to integrate different views within the teaching of economics, it is not surprising that student movements such as the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics and The University of Manchester Post-Crash Economics Society have quickly gained popularity. These groups advocate for a more pluralistic theoretical and methodological teaching of economics by incorporating not only different views but also different subjects, such as psychology, politics and history, within the teaching of economics. It is also unsurprising therefore that Rethinking Economics, a network of students, lecturers and thinkers that aims to ‘rethink’ the way economics is taught by shining light on different approaches to the subject, was born in the UK.

 

Indeed economics in the UK is being taught as if it were a natural science rather than a social science, where theories and predictions are given veracity by mathematical models fuelled by unrealistic assumptions. I would therefore highlight the three main problems of an undergraduate Economics degree in Bath, which may also be replicable to an extent elsewhere in the UK and Italy, as follows: overdependence on mathematics; lack of context in description and analysis of theories; and lack of an interdisciplinary approach.

 

A glance at the economics degree programs offered by the five top universities in the UK according to The Sunday Times in 2013, shows that at the ‘best institutions’ a student will mainly be taught course of micro and macroeconomics, statistics, mathematics and econometrics. The problem, however, is not that students are learning mathematical and statistical interpretations of economics, which are necessary to understand certain aspects of the subject and useful for analyses and predictions. But rather, the problem lies in the overdependence of the teaching on mathematical models. Indeed, at the University of Bath an economics student has significantly fewer chances of achieving top marks in his/her degree if he/she is not a good mathematics student. This problem, I have been told, is similar in Italy where mathematical models are used to explain phenomena in an oversimplified rational manner, at the expense of the development of the students’ critical abilities.

 

Parallel to the overdependence on mathematics, is an almost complete neglect of the historical roots and context in which the theories and models taught to students were bred. Analysing the historical context in which theories were formulated, by also referring to primary sources, is crucial to understand their relevance within a framework and to evaluate the extent to which they are still valid and applicable today. Moreover, the history of economic thought is essential to understand where there have been flaws and problems in the world and in the models used to represent situations, and where changes were deemed necessary. Essentially, as Paul Krugman argues, one cannot fully understand the importance of certain doctrines if one does not know where they have come from and why they have survived throughout time. Unfortunately, few institutions in the UK require economics students to take a course in Economic History, unlike in Italy where most universities offer it in the first year of the degree.

 

However, most economics students in the UK and those at Italian institutions have something in common in these regards: they can graduate without ever reading a page of Adam Smith’s works, despite his fame and importance as being considered the ‘Father of Economics’. Indeed at Bath from the first lecture of microeconomics we were taught to understand Smith as a historical example of the necessity of a free market and for actors within this system to act solely according to their self-interests, without reading his texts. However, despite the frequent allusions to Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776) throughout the microeconomics course, we were never taught about the particular historic and social context of eighteenth-century Great Britain, nor were we told about the ethical limits that Smith imposed on an individual to pursue his self-interest. Indeed, Smith was never an advocate of a completely unregulated free market, which anyone could understand if they read his passages, especially those from The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). By cherry-picking quotes and taking theories out of context, the risk is that they are misinterpreted and misused.

 

Yet the most upsetting problem with how economics is taught at an undergraduate level is its general lack of an interdisciplinary approach. A well rounded understanding of economics must include politics and other social sciences on the one hand, to have a broader understanding of the factors influencing an economic system, as well as psychology, to understand the motivations of individuals. The Italian system does somewhat integrate an interdisciplinary approach to the subject by including courses such as Law and Economic History in three-year undergraduate degrees, but this is not enough. In the UK, even though such courses are not included as core components of the degree, Economics departments offer a wide range of optional courses from which students can choose. Courses such as Behavioural Economics, Environmental Economics, Economics of Politics, and so forth analyse economics from different perspectives and allow students to develop a critical understanding of the subject, were they to be chosen instead of the more requested finance-related ones. Indeed, having the possibility to choose optional modules increasingly throughout the degree allows Economics students to diversify their passions and interests, instead of creating a more unified and less informed body of students, as the Italian system mandates.

 

Overall, the Italian system can learn a few lessons from the British Economics programmes, even though the prior’s problems might be more systematic rather than solely related to the Economics departments. More intimacy with students, by offering more in depth and current affairs based seminars, and a greater choice of courses, by allowing more freedom of choice throughout the whole degree (not only in the final year), would be two great steps forward. Moreover, from a methodological point of view, if students were required to write essays and prepare presentations, instead of learning books by heart and regurgitating them at exams, they would have a greater and deeper understanding of the subject.

 

Yet, from my own experience at Bath and from my extensive discussions with my Italian colleagues, there seem to be some common problems in the teaching of Economics at an undergraduate level. Generally, the absence of a less-mathematically based and more interdisciplinary approach is the main issue that, in the long run, leads to disillusionment of students, as they see an ever-increasing gap between reality and theory. More importantly, the Economics departments are in danger of not cultivating well-rounded critical individuals who may therefore be unfit for employment once they graduate. A good economist must not only be a good mathematician who can recite theories by heart. As J M Keynes once wrote,  “the master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts…he must be mathematician, historian, statesman, [and] philosopher — in some degree.”