Reflections on the ISIPE Open Letter from around the world

Words by Ross Cathcart, Senior Organiser, RE Support Team

In May 2014, members of the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics (ISIPE) published a call from pluralism in economics. Open Letter’s demands were simple: an economics education that was pluralist, real-world and critical.

The Rethinking Economics Support Team have caught up with some of the organisers, groups and campaigners that were either there at the beginning or have been using the Open Letter as a tool for change ever since.

All individuals are commenting in an individual capacity.

Tree Wastson | Co-Director, Rethinking Economics Support Team and former member of Post-Crash Economics Society, University of Manchester

The International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics (ISIPE) was formed of students who began studying in the wake of the Financial Crash, with many of us graduating none the wiser as to how and why it happened, and what we as economists could be contributing in the aftermath.

There has been some progress at individual universities. I am incredibly proud of what the Post-Crash Economics Society has achieved in Manchester. But students across the world will soon be sitting in lectures and seminars that do not even reference the economic fallout of COVOID-19, nevermind critically explore a diverse set of approaches to the question of how we rebuild our economies. Without a pluralist education, the economists’ toolbox still only contains a hammer. In this post pandemic world, we cannot afford to see every problem as a nail.

Diana García López | RE representative in ISIPE 

The drafting of the ISIPE letter is perhaps the most beautiful example of international collaboration and disinterested team spirit I have ever been part of. I will never forget the first skype call held in the winter of 2013-2014. One by one, voices from across the world shared surprisingly similar stories of how they had started to organise locally to make up for the frustratingly narrow way they were being taught economics. The fog lifted and little lights appeared in the distance, at the sides: each group discovered that they were not alone, they were part of a fleet of small boats, all headed in the same direction in the middle of the night. At that point, Rethinking Economics was not even one year old, but we discovered that the French PEPS-Economie group had already diligently analysed all Economics syllabuses in France to evidence their biases, and the German Netzwerk students had been going strong for many years with dozens of local groups across the country. It was the start of a few months of intensive collaborative drafting that ended in the publication on 5 May in newspapers across the world.

In times of crisis, diversity of thought becomes a necessity; after all, us humans are great at adaptating to change thanks to our ability to imagine alternatives. In times of crisis, boundaries between disciplines melt away as if by magic (they are more obviously artificial); any restriction of thought and policy action due to methodological or theoretical silos translates, tragically, into a waste of time and a loss of lives. Hence, six years on, the ideas reflected in our open letter are alive and kicking: we are facing challenges “from financial stability, to food security and climate change”, where it is crucial to “understand the broader social impacts and moral implications of economic decisions”. “United across borders”, with the crisis comes an opportunity to bring economics “back into the service of society”. The situation is so unprecedented that, to some extent, we are all students once again. Happy birthday, pluralists !

Seun Adeyemo | Organiser, The Uploaders, Nigeria

The ISIPE Letter was, and continues to be, a crucial call for change to the economic discipline, practice and future. And the recommendations are capable of powerfully changing the future of the world generally. The economy of any country is very important to the people, Nigeria is no exception. And the economic decisions taken are what shape the economy and the future of people. Therefore, economists play a crucial role in all these; It is important that we consider how economics is taught and how economists use the knowledge to impact the economy.

With the current economic situation in Nigeria, even before the pandemic, there are clear signs that the economics profession is doing far less than the purpose for which it was created: a better life for everyone (growth and development among others). Graduates get into the business world and do jobs that have little or nothing to do with their study, and in cases where the square fits, most young economists are clueless on how to apply their knowledge to real life events and situations that require their expertise. In college, the curriculum does not present the Nigerian economy in its actual form and real-life situations are hardly used to teach in class. This needs to change.

Estudios Nueva Economia | Chile

This new anniversary of ISIPE’s Open Letter finds our organization in a particular country context. Not only are we affected by the crisis of the coronavirus, but it is also 6 months since the beginning of the social revolt, which brought with it the most massive protests Chile has seen since the return of democracy. Using the cry “it’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years”, alluding to the rise in the subway fare, the protests revealed the deep discontent against the neoliberal model, of which our country boasted of being a successful experiment. Experts claimed they “did not see this revolt coming”, however, we believe that this model, which is still being perpetuated day by day in the teachings of our economics schools, had long shown signs of not being the neoliberal paradise some people claimed it was. In this sense, ISIPE’s Open Letter takes on greater relevance as an invitation to transform the teaching and practice of our profession, in pursuit of a life worth living for our people.

Mads Falkenfleth Jensen | Rethinking Economics, Danmark representative in ISIPE

Since the publication of the ISIPE open letter on May 4th in 2014, the movement for pluralism in Denmark has had massive success.

Organizationally, the movement has grown into a national network, “Rethinking Economics Danmark” with member groups at three different universities and is expanding beyond the initial relatively narrow membership of only economics students. In 2019, the debate entered parliament, when there was a hearing with the then Minister of Higher Education and Research on the lack of pluralism in economics, and its potential limiting effects on new ideas for the future. We also host a weekly show on national radio, Boblen [The Bubble], focusing on showcasing the dilemmas of economic theories and highlighting the strengths of political economy.

The economics departments are now acknowledging the lack of Philosophy of Science, Economic History and History of Economic Ideas although they still believe the mainstream has all the answers. Perhaps the greatest impact we have had, is that all economics students are now aware of the rich debate on pluralism in economics, which is at times even discussed in classes and on the halls of the departments. The ISIPE open letter is still a focal point that is often used as a reference in such debates.

There is still much to be done, and we intend on increasing the public pressure on the economics departments, while working with other departments on filling the void. It is hard to change a department in academia, and it might be more beneficial for us to build something knew to make the old economics departments simply go obsolete.

Louison Cahen-Fourot | PEPS-Economie, France representative in ISIPE

In November 2013, the French movement for pluralism in economics, PEPS-Économie, sent an email to some students groups fighting for pluralism around the world. The mail suggested to unite internationally and to write a common open letter that would be published worldwide. In the following weeks, many groups and students would join and engage into the open letter writing. This epic weeks-long writing process – full of heated debates and clashes – culminated into a nearly 10 hours skype to validate every single word and commas, with people going to bed and coming back depending on their time zone.

On May 5th, 2014, the letter was out in major newspapers all around the world, signed by 47 groups worldwide and backed up by dozens of academics and attracting wide media attention.

ISIPE held two international meetings gathering all the groups together, in Tübingen in 2015 and in Paris in March 2016. While, it itself never turned into a formal organization, other organizations taking part in ISIPE like Rethinking Economics, have spread worldwide. Perhaps the important thing was not so much to create an international organization after all. It was to feel numerous  and animated by a common goal. The process that led to unite all these students and groups together created long lastings relations and connections that still last today. In the years since, younger generations have taken over the flame, building on this history.

Yoni Ben Bassat | RE representative in ISIPE, Israel
The ISIPE open letter gave a strong tailwind for the Israeli economics student movement, which resulted a burst of new members and events for the promotion of a more pluralist curriculum. Though the movement isn’t as active today, these efforts bore fruit and contributed to the ongoing rewriting of several courses in the economics departments in Israel. Teaching us that the local-national efforts, riding on top of the international organization, had and still has s a huge impact (even though change takes time).
Looking ahead, the international movement needs to encourage and support the formation of more local groups, while sharpening our critique and expanding our collective knowledge. Our key advantage is the inspiration, optimism and enthusiasm reflected in the joint actions of members and groups worldwide.
Carolin Ortlepp | Netzwerk Plurale ökonomik representative in ISIPE, Germany

I am still fascinated how the movement spread over the globe after the publication of the open letter 6 years ago. I was taken by this wave and felt engaged so quickly. The open discussion on how our goals can be achieved, what we can improve ourselves and the readiness to contribute was unique and contagious. I think, all people who at some point or another contributed to the cause of bringing more pluralism into the economics discipline, are evidence for the success of true international collaboration. In 2015, for the first year anniversary of the open letter, we managed to motivate 35 groups in 14 countries all over the world! What an effort and what a great experience; with some of you I stayed in touch, with some the roads crossed again and some even became friends. International Collaboration and speaking with one voice in diversity was our main strength and it helped us to be heard! Let’s keep this in mind for the future.

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