Post Crash economics and campaigning for curriculum change

7th April 2014

Economics and environmental sustainability rarely go hand in hand, in fact, they are quite often diametrically opposed. Wealth creation is used to justify short-term financial gain at the expense of the natural world and society as a whole rather than considering longer term models that bring more modest economic rewards coupled with a balanced approach to environmental and ethical concerns. Neoclassical economics have created an inequitable society based on unsustainable principles of infinite growth. They have become the central tenet of university economics courses throughout the UK, and other ideas have been marginalised and dismissed.

This blind adherence to orthodox free market teaching seems especially outmoded following the 2008 financial crash, a crisis which most mainstream economists failed to predict.  But challenging the traditional free market mentality is not easy when it is so deeply embedded into our society, so it’s heartening to see students themselves beginning to question the way economics are taught and demanding that institutions widen the curriculum to include alternative economic theories and models.

At the University of Manchester economics undergraduates have formed the Post-Crash Economics Society, which has been set up to try and broaden the range of perspectives and the teaching methods used by the Manchester Economics Department. The society states on its website that “It is our belief that the content of the economics syllabus and teaching methods could and should be seriously rethought.” Another group of students at University College London are also challenging the status quo. They have set up the UCLU Better Economics Society based on the premise that “economics should be a tool for creating a better society, not just a route to a career in finance”.

The Chair of the Post-Crash Economics Society at the University of Manchester, Maeve Cohen, notes "Students across Britain are taught neoclassical economics as if it was the only theory in economics. It is given such a dominant position in our modules that many students aren't even aware that there are other distinct theories out there that question the assumptions, methodologies and conclusions of the economics we are taught. A consequence of this is that economics students never develop the faculties necessary to critically question, evaluate and compare economic theories and enter the working world with a false belief about what economics is and a knowledge base limited to neoclassical theory."

At EAUC, we welcome these signs of change in an area that has been resistant for too long. It is increasingly obvious that society needs to rethink the way our economies are run and we are excited to see students taking the initiative and demanding a much-needed debate on how economists should be educated. We look forward to hearing more from these groups in the future.

Business schools are also in need of a rethink, as they teach an ideology firmly rooted in self-interest above public interest. Business school courses have broadly resisted engaging with the sustainability agenda in recent years, despite various initiatives aimed at breaking down the barriers. Writing in the Guardian, Kenneth Amaeshi, director of the Sustainable Business Initiative, and an associate professor (Reader) in strategy and international business at the University of Edinburgh, commented that “In my experience as an academic in a business school, I have over time come to the view that society and social issues mean little or nothing in mainstream business education, which is unashamedly steeped in the narrow pursuit of economic performance.” We hope students on these courses will be inspired by their economics brethren to also challenge the status quo and put sustainability at the core of their courses in the future.

For those of you attending the EAUC Annual Conference 2014, why not come along to our Exchange ‘The Elephant in the Room’, which considers how world economics are negatively impacting on environmental progress. We're also hoping that Maeve will join us in our day 2 panel keynote which asks the question: Who now has the sustainability mandate at your university or college?

Find out more and book your place at this year's Annual Conference to learn more about this powerful movement.
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