What sparked the idea?
The idea that economics as a discipline is narrow, inward-looking or broken is one that has been present for over four decades. Rethinking Economics is the latest generation of trying to change it.
Students and professors at the University of Sydney were the first to highlight the narrowness of their economics education, and partially succeeded by opening a political economy department that still exists today. In 1992 a letter was published in the American Economic Review calling for a broader economics education signed by nine Nobel Laureates including Paul Samuelson and Robert Solow. Between 2000-2003, students in Paris, Cambridge and Harvard argued again for their education to be radically transformed. In France, this led to significant media coverage and an eventual commission ordered by the Minister of Education!
Undeniably, students of Rethinking Economics and similar student movements were influenced heavily by the events of 2007/8 – a global financial crisis that shook not only the global economy, but the foundations of economics itself. “Why did nobody see this coming?” was a question posed by the Queen of England, but the mistrust and scepticism of economists was shared by the wider public.
Today’s Rethinkers went to study economics hoping to understand why the financial crash happened; why was unemployment so high; why were public services being cut? The reality was a narrow, dispassionate exercise in some fairly basic calculus, coupled with a requirement to perform multiple-choice exams twice a year. Theory was not applied to the real-world, students worked with hypothetical apples and oranges rather than real case studies, past economic events were ignored and, perhaps most importantly, the theory that had led to the surrounding economic chaos was being imparted as if it was gospel, with no opportunity to evaluate its validity.
We need to rethink
Sharing the same disillusionment with the education they were receiving, a global body of students met in Tubingen, Germany in 2012 to share experiences and discuss how things could be different. Groups began to grow in London (LSE, UCL), Cambridge and Manchester.
We formed a productive relationship with the New Economy Organiser’s Network, who provide support and advice to this day. Rethinking Economics had begun, loose and informal at first, but vital for students to stay in touch and develop a shared, coherent argument for change.
By June 2013, we had held our first UK organisers day, writing down our vision, mission and values. We celebrated our first year by hosting the inaugural ‘Weekend of Rethinking Economics’ in London in the same month.
Growing the network and going truly global
We were discovering that the disappointment we felt with our education was not restricted to one particular university or even one country – this was a global trend. We visited Tubingen again for the first assembly of the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics (ISIPE – a coalition of student groups of which we are still a member of). This led to the drafting of an open letter detailing our shared commitments; in summary, pluralism of theory, methodology and disciplines. To this day it has been signed by nearly 100 student associations in over thirty countries.
Groups were joining our network from Israel, Brazil, Italy and China. We began to engage with professional economists through an ‘RE in the City’ project. In May 2014 representatives of UK groups met with MPs and economists at Westminster to discuss their campaign for a better economics education. Alongside the Foundation for European Economic Development, we co-launched a student essay prize in memory of the critical economist Mark Blaug, it is a competition that exists to this day. Lastly, we begun to enjoy sustained media attention, with op-ed’s in the Guardian, Financial Times, Washington Post, New York Times and El Mundo.
In summer 2014 two conferences took place that demonstrated how we had grown in the past two years. One in New York City with speakers ranging from Deirdre McCloskey, James K. Galbraith, Michael Sandel, Richard Wolff and Paul Krugman. It brought together enthusiastic founders of new Rethinking groups in North America: from Washington D.C, Phoenix, Boston, University of Waterloo (Canada), and beyond. Our second ‘Weekend of Rethinking Economics’ took place in London, attracting 300 attendees and 40 speakers.
The proof is in the pluralism
At this stage we were confident we were onto something. We had a movement growing the world over; we had agreed a clear idea of what exactly it was we wanted; academics, politicians and journalists were beginning to listen to and endorse our arguments. We were beginning to realise that in order to convince our opponents, we need to begin collecting evidence.
The Post-Crash Economics Society published a report detailing the failings of the economics education provided at the university of Manchester. A foreword was included by Bank of England Chief Economist, Andy Haldane, and endorsements provided by Victoria Chick (Emeritus Professor, UCL) and Stephen Davies (Director of the Institute of Economic Affairs). Supporting this was a survey carried out by Cambridge Society for Economic Pluralism, suggest that economics students are broadly unsatisfied with their courses and want more real‐world applicability, greater interdisciplinarity and a better training in general academic and future career skills.
‘Teaching Economics After the Crash’, aired on BBC World Service, brought our cause to a global audience. The University of Manchester’s economics department had been rumbled as student satisfaction fell by 21% in one year.
The first signs of success
By June 2015, UK universities Greenwich, Goldsmiths and Kingston had all begun to reform their economics curriculum. In Italy, Rethinkers had been invited to attend the prestigious Biennale Democrazia in Turin.
We were invited to the consultation process with the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA – sets standards for UK universities) Subject Benchmark Statement for Economics. Significant changes were made, including the changing of the the phrase “economic theory” to “economic theories” in several places in the document. The words “past and present” within the knowledge and understanding section was a nod to economic history, and students were encouraged to “reflect upon the links between economics and ethics”.
We had five new groups join our network, in Uganda, Scotland, the Netherlands, Denmark and Israel. To top it all off, our London ‘Weekend of Rethinking Economics’ was continued, this time joined by conferences in Manchester and Glasgow!
Economics for everyone
Increasingly, we were realising that reforming the teaching of economics at universities was only one half of the argument. We knew that today’s economics students were tomorrow’s policymakers, and these policymakers needed to find better solutions, but what was becoming increasingly obvious was that today’s economists simply weren’t communicating in a way wider society could understand – citizens needed to be empowered to contribute to economic debate.
Our organisers set to work on a variety of projects; we went to schools and arts centres to hold accessible workshops, we piloted a six-week community crash-course in Manchester. We worked with polling company Yougov to ask 1500 adults what they thought of economics, with results published in the Guardian.
Our efforts paid off when we received the funding to set up a ground-breaking public education website, Ecnmy.org. The inspiration is to create ‘Understandable Economics’ by encouraging people to learn, engage and act.
What’s going on now?
We’re planning more conferences, in five cities worldwide. We have residential weekends completed or planned in Denmark, the Netherlands, Israel, Italy and the UK. Some of these countries have even been applying for their own funding!
We’ve just completed our first book, The Econocracy: the perils of leaving economics to the experts, published later this year and including a review of economics degrees offered by seven leading British universities. We also have a Rethinking Reader due for publication in 2017.
We’re working with Lord Robert Skidelsky and Ha-Joon Chang to develop two Massive Open Online Courses, and in spring made a submission to a review of the Research Excellence Framework, which in our view prevents universities from hiring the breadth of economists necessary to provide a pluralist, liberal education.
You can read our 2016 Annual Report for a more in-depth look into the past year.