Can we help learners use economics to understand the fast-changing world in which they live?

By Giacomo Piccoli | 20 Jul 2022

Since 2016, we have asked CORE teachers around the world to pose a simple question to their students on the first day of their classes: “What is the most pressing problem economists today should be addressing?”. Their answers are then turned into word clouds, which shed some light on what students think the discipline should prioritise.

Inequality has always ranked among the students’ top priorities, however, new trends have emerged in the most recent exercise in 2021.

University of Strathclyde, UK, 2021.

Last year students were concerned about the immediate impact COVID-19 lockdowns were having on economies throughout the world, as well as plans for recovery. Early on in the pandemic, CORE  assembled a collection of resources to help learners understand the economics of COVID-19. CORE’s Eileen Tipoe – co-author of Economy, Society, and Public Policy (ESPP) and Doing Economics – and CORE’s researcher Dan Mead developed an interactive visualisation of COVID-19 transmission through networks, and its effects on inequality and the economy. This visualisation can be used as a stand-alone tool, or as part of an online learning experience combining the economics of COVID-19 with key concepts from CORE’s The Economy.

Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany, 2021.

While COVID-19 is still a concern for many, inflation and the cost of living crisis have appeared as problems to be addressed. The Economy devotes the entirety of Unit 15 to the explanation of inflation, the derivation of a model that can help to explain it, and the discussion of monetary policy and the role of central banks in fighting inflation. The ebook also includes a section explaining the US stagflation of the 1960s-1980s, a concept that has recently popped up in newspapers. Selected models in The Economy and ESPP are also explained in video tutorials prepared by Dr Ramin Nassehi (UCL and Centre for Teaching and Learning Economics) – including one on the derivation of the short-run Phillips curve and one on the derivation of the expectations-augmented Phillips curve.

Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico, 2021.

More than in previous years, in 2021 students indicated that climate change and sustainable development should be on top of the economics agenda. CORE offers several ways to help learners understand the economics of the environment. Unit 20 of The Economy uses the models and concepts developed in previous units to highlight the problem of climate change and the challenges in tackling it. In an extensive survey that we sent to CORE instructors, they told us that they would like environmental economics to have more prominence in the ebook. We will implement this piece of feedback in The Economy 2.0 (currently being written) by transforming the environment into another running theme throughout the book, alongside inequality.

In addition, Doing Economics offers two projects on climate change – Project 1 introduces learners to the measurement of climate change, while Project 11 shows how we can measure the willingness to pay for climate change mitigation. They can be used as stand-alone activities, or as complements to units in The Economy and ESPP. A box at the beginning of each project indicates the related units in the two ebooks. Projects 1 and 11 have been assembled into a free online course on Coursera: Doing Economics: Measuring climate change. This course is ideal for independent learners wanting to improve their data-handling skills in Excel by using real-world data on climate change.

Australian National University, Australia, 2021.

A specific facet of inequality is shown to be regarded as a pressing issue by students – wealth inequality. CORE’s work to bring this topic into the curriculum has been recognised and last September we were given a big boost to continue our efforts in the form of a £5 million donation to establish the James M. and Cathleen D. Stone Centre on Wealth Concentration, Inequality, and the Economy at UCL, which aims to advance research and teaching to provide a clear understanding of the causes of wealth inequality, and its economic and political consequences. The Stone Centre at UCL will harness CORE’s expertise in content creation for economics teaching. Thanks to the funding received as part of the donation, CORE’s researcher Tzvetan Moev created an interactive visualisation of global wealth inequality since 1995. This complements the original global income inequality interactive visualisation, whose underlying data was recently updated. A separate visualisation allows users to compare directly the distributions of income and wealth.

Of the large number of terms that appear less frequently, we should also mention capitalism and debt.

Unit 1 and Unit 2 of The Economy set the context of capitalism, explaining its key institutions, distinguishing features, and the role it played during the British Industrial Revolution. Unit 1 of The Economy: A South Asian Perspective also includes a section discussing the relationship between capitalism and colonialism.

The recently published CORE Insight Public debt: threat or opportunity? (authored by Barry Eichengreen and Ugo Panizza) introduces learners to the historical origins and economic analysis of public debt. It helps them to understand the connections between debt and deficits, analyse debt sustainability, and consider the economic and political challenges of public debt management.

Can we help learners to use economics to understand the fast-changing world in which they live? With confidence, we can say we can.

  • If you would like to run your own word cloud exercise, we have prepared an easy guide to do so.
  • You can also find out how students replied in 20172018 and in 2020.