PCES Myth Busting: Overthrowing the Department

This is the second edition of our ‘PCES Myth Busting’ series, which will talk  about our relationship with the Manchester economics department. The first edition, on neoliberalism, is here

It is a common misconception that PCES, and the entire student movement, are hostile towards the economics department and seek to change absolutely everything that is taught and researched. Headlines about us have characterised us as wanting to ‘tear up [the] syllabus’; economists have said they feel we want to displace them as the mainstream; students have even told us that they feel joining the society might somehow put them in a precarious position with their exam marks! (Note to all freshers: exams are marked anonymously).

Firstly, there is the obvious point (though it can’t be repeated enough) that advocating pluralism in teaching theories includes many that are currently taught, so there is no prima facie reason to expect that we would want to ‘overthrow’ the department. Asking for more is very different to rejecting what is on offer. As for students’ concerns about being penalised in exams or somehow disadvantaged by being involved with the PCES movement, surely students can only expect to gain a greater understanding of economics by engaging critically with it.

However, it is potentially reasonable to suggest that if many in the department are somehow resistant to pluralism itself, we would have a hostile relationship to those individuals. Nevertheless, we have always maintained a friendly dialogue with the department. We have found lecturers such as Peter Backus, Ralf Becker and Diane Coyle share some of our concerns about teaching, even if we disagree with them on some things.

Since the publication of our report Education, Economics and Unlearning in 2014, Peter, for example, has introduced a dissertation module; started a running event called Lunch with the Economist, with guests showcasing a range of ways economics is useful in academic research and employment. Diane has been teaching a popular course in Economics for Public Policy for the past few years which engages with real world issues such as Uber, the environment and privatisation vs nationalisation; she is also one of the lecturers for a new economic history course starting next semester. As the head of teaching, Ralf has been extremely responsive to our campaign – in his own lectures he started teaching ‘Bayesian’ statistics so that students could contrast it with the ‘frequentist’ approach. PCES do not claim credit for all of these changes, but they are consonant with many of our aims.

Even those lecturers who do not seem as directly responsive or sympathetic to our campaign can appreciate our presence. For example at a recent Lunch with the Economist event on the usefulness of economics degrees, Craig Webb (the director of the BEconSc degree) said that PCES had “changed the culture” of the department with regards to teaching. Many lecturers have said they agree with some of our calls for more essays and critical thinking, but bemoan the high student-staff ratios and demands from management that keep them from implementing anything like this. These are points that the student movement and economics department can agree on, and PCES are currently working with one lecturer to craft a module on inequality and poverty that is practically achievable.

What’s also interesting is that this approach has been reported by student groups across the world. We have been told time and again that local groups have “good and constructive” relationships with their departments and have “received support from a number of the academics in the Faculty of Economics, many of whom share at least some of the concerns put forward”. Any image of students seeking to overthrow departments and obstinate economists blindly opposing reform is therefore inaccurate.

This is not to gloss over the very real differences between PCES and the department – in particular, the need for critical pluralism and less of a focus on economic models – but we believe the future lies in putting these ideas forward in a gradual and realistic manner, so that we can persuade our department and others of the feasibility and desirability of our campaign. Students should not feel that challenging them is somehow unwelcome or detrimental to their university careers. On the contrary, academics by and large welcome debate and will appreciate such a level of engagement from their students.

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