UCL is particularly keen on encouraging people from under-represented backgrounds to study economics. Different sorts of people bring different perspectives and experiences of the world around us, and that’s the world that UCL’s students study. That’s one reason why, in 2018-19, UCL faculty created the Economics Challenge for local schools.
The university has a history of inclusivity going all the way back to 1826, and we know that increasing the diversity among the people who study our subject must be a good thing. And we also know that the economics profession needs to work harder to improve its treatment of women and people of colour.
The Economics Challenge that we created for local schools is based on the (award-winning) First Year Challenge that incoming UCL undergraduates take part in every year. It also inspired CORE’s Schools Economics Challenge, which has just launched its 2019 competition.
Five secondary schools around London (Hatch End High School, Lammas School, St Anne’s Catholic High School for Girls, Brampton Manor Academy, and The Charter School, North Dulwich) were selected to take part in the challenge. We asked participants to create a three-minute video, podcast or narrated PowerPoint inspired by Unit 1 of The Economy, the introductory text that they would be using if they decided to study Economics at UCL. We wanted to inspire the 15- and 16-year olds who took part to go out into their local communities, and think about how ideas about the capitalist system, growth and inequality could be used to analyse what they saw there.
Those of us who teach Economics hoped that taking the challenge would help the school students realise that our subject is about much more than money and finance, as many of them believe at first. We also wanted then to discover that economics is everywhere, and studying it can help them to think creatively about the world around us, whether they choose to work in economics or not.
Each school entered a team of about five students. In February, they came to UCL with their teachers for their first information and guidance session. We introduced the students to the rules of the challenge, and assigned them to first-year students from the Economics department, who would act as mentors throughout. Our mentors became excellent role models. They answered questions about what it would be like to study at university, explained why studying economics would be a good choice, and helped the school students decide on their subject choices for the final two years of school.¹
Katy Brown was one of the student mentors. She recalls that she initially doubted how much help she would be able to provide. But from the start of the session, the school students were firing questions at her, both about the specifics of the project and the research required for it, as well as questions about economic concepts and ideas.
She also found that the students wanted advice about studying Economics, particularly at UCL. What was it like to go to university? And so their teacher reported that the challenge had a side benefit: it encouraged students to begin taking higher education seriously, and think carefully about how their impending A-level choices would affect their lives after leaving school.
Soumya Khurana was also a student mentor. She reports that she felt inspired by the school student enthusiasm: they immediately understood how economics linked to the topics they wanted to explore.
At the beginning of March, the school students visited again to hear which school had won. We took this opportunity to share more about UCL and the opportunities to study Economics at university.
UCL students and staff talked to them about their experiences as teenagers, why they chose economics, and life at UCL. Among them: Camila Cea (pictured), currently a teaching assistant in UCL’s Economics department, and a CORE trustee. Camila told the students about her experience when she was a member of the Chilean student movement that achieved change by demonstrating against the way the economics curriculum was being taught after the financial crisis, making it more relevant to the lives of students.
The school teachers reported that they liked the challenge because it was completely different to most events they had participate in. they also liked the way that CORE took a broader, contextual approach to economics.
And the school students? They enjoyed learning more about their local area – in some cases, researching and interviewing local businesspeople. Also, they told us that making a multimedia submission was completely unlike a standard school assignment.
The entries the 15-year-old students submitted showed their diversity of ideas, with creativity and analysis. There was an investigation of drug dealing in North London, an entry about gentrification in London’s boroughs, and even a discussion of rising prices at the local fish and chip shop.
The winning entry was submitted by St Anne’s Catholic High School for Girls. The students analysed the effects of the new stadium built for Tottenham Hotspur’s football team on their local economy.
 For readers in other countries: British school students specialise early, so it is important they make informed choices at an early age. Students usually choose four subjects to study at age 16, known as A-levels. Their grades in these subjects decide which universities they can attend, as well as which degree courses they can apply to.