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Rethinking Economics Employers Report

Words by Ross Cathcart, Head of Local Comms and Events, Rethinking Economics

You can read the full Rethinking Economics Employers Report here.

More of us are going to university than ever. The path is clear: by going to university, you will equip yourself with the skills and abilities to allow you to pursue a future career. And yet, when it comes to economics education, this offer doesn’t seem to stack up. A new report by Rethinking Economics (RE) provides an analysis of the link between economics curricular and the skills gap in economics graduates. The Employers Report exposes economics curricula across the United Kingdom as failing to provide the analytical skills and critical thinking required. The report brings together the perspectives of future employers of economics graduates to ask what can be done to make economics education fit for purpose.

Since the expansion of university intake in the early 1990s, issues of ‘employability’ have become increasingly important in UK higher education. The introduction of tuition fees and market logic to higher education has led many students to query the academic rewards of attending university. In the ten years since the financial crash, the number of students studying economics at A-Level and undergraduate levels has shot up. Students see the study of economics as a tool to understand the world around them and a means through which they can work to improve it.

The teaching of economics often isn’t up to scratch. Undergraduate university curricula remain dominated by one form of economic thinking that views individuals as ultimately rational beings, whose actions are based on calculated self-interest. Other schools of economic thought – ecological, feminist, behavioural – remain peripheral to, if not omitted from, most courses. Economics is presented to new students as a series of irrefutable mathematical truths and proofs detached from current affairs, rather than social theory subject to debate and discussion. There is a fundamental disconnect between what students want from their economics education and what they get.

Increasingly, employers are on to the stitch-up. Research for this report, led by Rethinker Allana Yurko, involved in-depth interviews with 18 employers representing sectors that economics students were eager to enter, including the Bank of England, the Financial Conduct Authority and the engineering professional services firm WSP. We asked whether they believed undergraduate economics education was equipping students with the skills and knowledge required in the workplace.

Employers felt recent graduates were lacking in three key areas. Graduate applicants often have a solid mathematical grounding but were unable to apply this knowledge to real-world situations. Secondly, recent graduates demonstrated poor communication skills, particularly in translating complex economic problems into language comprehensible to non-economists, a crucial skill for any career in economics. Finally, a sense of critical thinking and mental adaptability was found be to lacking; problematic given the practice of economics in the workplace often involves taking incomplete data, critically appraising it, and drawing out clear conclusions.

Employers believed that these issues have arisen not due to an inherent deficit in graduate abilities, but from insufficient content, methods, and assessments within university economics curricula. It seems that while students have been demanding curriculum change for a while, so too are their future employers. If students of economics are going to be able to pursue the socially-minded careers they want, something needs to change. We are calling on universities to make a number of key reforms to economics curricula, informed by employers and highlighted in the report, to ensure that economics degrees are fit for purpose:

Vary the subject matter

Rather than relying solely on standard economics textbooks that abstract from real-world issues, course content should integrate a wider range of learning materials, such as economics journals and news articles. Providing perspectives from the different approaches to economics would also give students an understanding of the political, contested nature of the discipline and foster intellectual openness.

Introduce inductive and problem-based learning methods

Undergraduate economics assessments largely focus on multiple choice questions and the utilisation of mathematical formulae, both of which fail to develop the application skills and intellectual curiosity valued by the employers in our sample. To overcome these problems, undergraduate teaching could utilise an inductive, problem-focused approach in which empirical evidence and real-world issues are introduced prior to theoretical knowledge.

Encourage peer-to-peer learning and group assessments

A greater focus on peer-led discussion and debate within economics seminars would help students develop the communication skills necessitated by graduate employers. Integrating group work, particularly group presentations and debates, also has the dual benefit of augmenting students’ communication skills whilst developing interpersonal abilities.

Undergraduate Research Projects

Many of the employers that contributed to this report emphasised the usefulness that undertaking independent research would have to graduate recruitment and selection practices. Encouraging students to write dissertations that focus on problems and methodologies of practicable – rather than solely theoretical – importance would align with both of these interests.

 

Students want the study of economics to provide them with the tools and skills to engage with and improve society. Employers want graduates that possess the critical thinking to solve complex problems as well as the the ability to apply this analysis to the real world and translate it to a non-economic audience. It’s time that economics curricula start delivering on both.

You can read the full Rethinking Economics Employers Report here.

The Rethinking Economics’ Employers Report will be launched, on 26th July 2018 at European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. We are delighted to welcome Margaret Stevens, Head of Economics Department at the University of Oxford; Andy Ross, Former Deputy Director at the Government Economics Service; Maeve Cohen, Director, Rethinking Economics and Allana Yurko, the Report author, to speak at the launch. Bookings for the event are now closed.

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