Saturday, 31 January 2015

It's out! The revised UK economics curriculum

Update 4/12/2015 
There was a final review meeting on 1st June 2015, after this Blog post was written. My summary of these discussions is available here. Some changes were accepted  in the final version of the SBSE, available here, in particular:
The phrases 'due to observational equivalence' and 'methodology of science' were dropped
Different methodological approaches are 'understood' rather than the weaker 'appreciated'
'Psychological biases' are included
'A range of evidence' is critically assessed, and methods are 'critically understood'
Despite intense lobbying, 'ethics' was not accepted as an acceptable context alongside 'historical, political, institutional, international social and environmental'. Instead, ethics is a subject area that is 'linked to'.

It's out! The UK's subject benchmark statement for economics (SBSE), against which the quality of UK economics degrees is judged, has been published online. The QAA can withdraw degree awarding powers and the right to be called a university if it is not satisfied with standards and quality. This draft 2015 SBSE appears nine months after Rethinking Economics represented student voices at the QAA committee. The QAA have a survey to gather comments from 'anyone with an interest in higher education in the UK' including students, academic staff and graduate employers.

This brief post is to review changes since the 2007 SBSE, by mapping them against student calls for theoretical, methodological and interdisciplinary pluralism.

Theoretical pluralism

There is a new statement that ‘various interpretations of commonly observed economic phenomena exist, due to observational equivalence, and hence explanations may be contested. It is therefore important that economic phenomena are studied in their relevant historical, political, institutional and international contexts' (Section 2.2). Resources are no longer 'scarce' (Section 2.1) and economics is more modestly described as 'a social science' rather than 'a key discipline in the social sciences’ (Section 2.3). The phrase ‘a coherent core of economic principles’ has been replaced with the more open-minded 'relevant principles' (Section 4.1) and the threshold levels required by students refer to 'economic theories and interpretations' rather than just a single 'theory'. Finance and income distribution have been reclassified as dynamic analyses (Section 2.2.) and the subject specific skills include 'market failure' and 'conflicts of interest' (Section 5), perhaps in recognition of Minsky and Marx.

Methodological and interdisciplinary pluralism

The problems with abstraction have been highlighted, with students expected ‘(to appreciate) the specific assumptions that guide the criteria for simplification’ (Section 3.1). Students will be assessed on their ability to use 'evidence and knowledge of institutional and historical context' (Sections 6 and 7). In terms of their role in the broader academy, economists are said to engage with a wider range of disciplines, including ‘finance, international relations, law, ethics and philosophy’.

What is left out?

There are notable absences, and this list is not exhaustive. Although governments were accepted as economic entities, financial institutions were not; and legal and ethical contexts are not included (Section 2.2). The relationship with mathematics and management remains muddled: mathematics is used and management is informed (Section 2.3). Evidence is evaluated and assessed, but never critically. The role of government and the System of National Accounts were rejected as topics, as was re-wording to encompass qualitative and mixed methods. Students are asked to 'appreciate history (of economic thought)' but not to understand it; and there is no requirement to appreciate or understand ethical issues.