In February we wrote about our grant from the Nuffield Foundation. The goal is to create a course called Economics as a Quantitative Social Science (EQuSS) for students who are not intending to specialise in economics, and develop a new text called Economy, Society, and Public Policy, and the resources that teachers will need to introduce students to handling the related economic data.
Many universities and academics have volunteered to collaborate with us on developing, testing and evaluating the course. On 3 May 2017 we kicked off the project with our first meeting at the offices of the Nuffield Foundation for potential volunteers and stakeholders. In the spirit of EQuSS, about half the audience at the meeting were non-economists, including academic social scientists, as well as representatives from think tanks, government, and journalism.
We were also delighted that students who have been using CORE resources at Birkbeck, University of London, were there to describe their experiences and what they liked about our course. Emily Pal, a first year student on Birkbeck’s BSc in Economic and Social Policy said she likes that CORE included topics like bubbles, inequality and fairness that were unexpected in an economics course – but relevant to what is happening in the world today.
“Studying CORE helped me to see a much bigger picture of what is happening in the economy than I expected. And the biggest change in my thinking is that I now see economics as a young and dynamic discipline. There are contemporary issues, ideas and debates which I now ‘get.’ And this makes economics really exciting to study,” she said.
Her colleague Sinéad Boultwood says “CORE has changed my thinking – it’s emphasised the importance of institutions” and she highlighted the online format, “digital rather than physical is much more convenient, especially for those of us with physical disabilities.”
Economics education in general has been criticised for an algebra fetish that downgrades the “social” in social science , and so it was no surprise that the differences between economics and other social sciences was the focus of the discussion. EQuSS aims to provide for non-specialist students what CORE has done for future economists like Emily and Sinéad, so the course will again begin from how the economy works, and teach students useful tools to understand the problems and engage with them.
It would be arrogant, however, to assume that simply transplanting CORE’s approach to a new course will automatically make EQuSS feel interesting or relevant to other social scientists. Deborah Mabbett, who teaches in the Politics department at Birkbeck, and Rich Harris, who teaches Geography at the University of Bristol (and is involved with one of Nuffield’s interdisciplinary Q-Step centres, which provide social science degrees incorporating a strong quantitative skills focus) warned that their students are wary of economics, and its reputed obsession with abstract mathematics. In both politics and sociology, the group argued, students are used to a debates-based rather than a tool-based approach.
But John MacInnes from the department of Sociology at the University of Edinburgh, among many others, argued that the project would be important as a way to break down these unnecessary disciplinary boundaries, because all the social sciences will increasingly need students to work with data.
For example, Lord Stern’s keynote talk spoke about how our economy was embedded in the biosphere, and highlighted the role of ethical as well as economic concepts of discounting. He sketched out how non-specialist students and a broader public might learn to understand the challenges of climate change in this way.
Ed Conway from Sky News showed a recent deck of slides he used for a news segment on UK inequality. He wants data to be easier to access, he said, and for students to learn how best to present it visually. Rebecca Riley of NIESR, who is director of the new Office for National Statistics’ centre of excellence on economic statistics – which has promised “cultural change in the delivery of economic statistics” will be one of the people working to make that data more accessible.
CORE’s EQuSS team will be working with Ed and Rebecca as we create problem-based resources to pique the natural curiosity of students. We’ll be keeping you up to date on all our progress in this blog and, if you want to know more about EQuSS or get involved, please contact us.