The Wrong Kind of Curriculum Reform

Manchester’s economics department has quietly proposed a radical reorganisation of its undergraduate degrees’ structure. Whilst you might expect us to be celebrating, this is the wrong sort of radical. This blog post will take you through the proposal and explain our opposition to the move. All quotes throughout this post are taken from a document circulated to students involved in the consultation.

The proposal

At the heart of the proposal is the division of economics undergraduate students into two ‘streams’. The division will take place in the core modules: microeconomics, macroeconomics and econometrics. The majority of students – which will be supplied largely by the BAEcon degree – will study the first stream. This stream will be more applied in its approach, with there being a focus on real-life examples. This is designed for students who wish to apply economic principles to a range of problems, for example as private sector economists.

A minority of students – coming largely from the BEconSc degree – will study a more ‘technical’ stream. It will “take a more quantitative approach and go into more technical detail on how to derive and produce answers”. The proposal continues that this stream is aimed at those who intend to “go onto a career in academia or in a specialised technical field, such as in central banks, some government departments, or financial markets”.

Why is this being proposed?

Briefly, the diversity of mathematical abilities in second year classes at Manchester causes issues for lecturers and this proposal aims to address that. By grouping together those who are better at maths and those that are weaker, the idea is that content should better fit students’ abilities.

Why do we oppose the change?

It’s important to note that this proposal is the outcome of an undergraduate curriculum review conducted by members of the economics department. We’d like to take this opportunity to commend the department for doing so and in particular for holding a series of student consultations accompanying the review. However, throughout the student consultations, students were not in favour of the change, as is clear from the minutes from the meetings available here. Although the department claims in this year’s NSS round that there is more opportunity for feedback, making a proposal acting against student opinion shows that they’re not listening to this feedback.

During the student consultation, the worry was raised the two stream proposal this will create elitism between the two degree structures. One source of this elitism is the way in which the change will equate superiority with ‘quantitative’ or ‘technical’ prowess. This is clear to anyone that cares to read between the lines of the proposal. If you’ve taken the ‘technical stream’ you can work at the Bank of England, Goldman Sachs or the Treasury; all that is offered for the ‘applied stream’ is an “economist in the private sector”. Interestingly, it’s possible Manchester have this backwards: reports from employers suggest that is is not technical or mathematical ability missing from economics graduates, but communication skills and historical or institutional knowledge of the economy.

Not only is such elitism unhealthy, defining the superior in such a way goes against everything we have campaigned for. Time and time again, we have argued that economics needs to move away from a deductive, abstract and highly mathematical framework if it is to return to reality. This proposal will enshrine such naval-gazing  in the BEconSc programme, which the department themselves admit will be “narrower”.

The proposal also restricts the prospects of those on the ‘applied’ stream. This is implicitly recognised in the statement that “certain MSc and PhD programmes that have a technical or quantitative focus would be unattainable for these students”. With today’s top institutions requiring an undergraduate degree with a “technical or quantitative focus”, economics masters programmes at elite universities would be out of reach for those on the BAEcon degree. And it isn’t just Harvard that’s ruled out.  It’s highly unlikely that a student on the ‘applied’ stream would be able to study for the MSc in Economics at Manchester, or for that matter a similar course at any Russell Group university. Ruling out further postgraduate study of economics at Manchester for the majority of economics students would be a terrible loss.

There is an alternative

Recall that the proposal sets out to eliminate some of the variation in mathematical ability. We see a relatively simple way to tackle this. By forcing those that only have GCSE Maths to take extra ‘top-up’ mathematics and statistics modules in first year- with potentially the same for those with only AS level Maths- we could ensure that all students arrive in second year with a more harmonised mathematical ability.

We hope the economics department at Manchester will use some common sense and not adopt this proposal.

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