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posted April 2003

Bringing the Students Back In
Rasmus Lema   (Graduate student, Roskilde University, Denmark)


Economics has recruitment problems. If this is not a global problem, at least it is a problem in most OECD countries. In a recent article it is observed that there has been a decline in undergraduate degrees in economics in Australia, Canada, Germany, and United States throughout the 1990s [1]. In that article it is argued that there appears to be no convincing explanation for this trend: There seems to be no connection to changes in gender composition, the "price" of a degree to a student, marking standards, degree requirements, or pedagogical methods. However, the reason for the decline in interest might have to be found among other factors.


In Denmark, too, there has been a marked decline in the interest in studying economics over the last decade. This year, as previous years, the number of students admitted to the 'faculties of economics' is falling far short of capacity. In the search for an explanation for this trend, my hypothesis is this: Economics is simply found to be boring and incomprehensible by education-seekers and therefore they would rather study something else.


I must admit that I find it hard to blame these education-seekers. They are basically right: Economics is boring because standard introductory textbooks have been vacuumed-cleaned for all interesting debates and disagreements. 'There are off-course important debates and disagreements', young students are told, 'but you must wait. In order to understand these debates, you have to be able to understand them in terms of THE model'. Similarly, economics is incomprehensible because of the extensive use of complicated maths (considering most students' capabilities). It makes the subject impenetrable and the discipline is therefore considered to be hard to link to the reality that potential students know and intuitively understand. In sum, economics must be reformed if students are to return. This conclusion holds for Denmark – I am sure – and wouldn’t be surprised if it was true for most other OECD countries too.

In Pursuit of Purpose

There are other, albeit closely related, reasons for the students' deflection of economics too. In choosing an education, matters of identity and the pursuit of ‘meaning’ are very important. In the words of Veblen, man is a ‘purpose-seeking animal’ – but obviously it is hard for most Danish education-seekers to see the purpose in studying economics. One could imagine that the drive was to get access to the large pool of well-paid jobs that exists for economics-degree holders in Denmark. Clearly, however, this is not the highest-ranking consideration for education-seekers. Herein lies an irony: The so-called science of choice – with maximising behaviour as its most important axiom – is being skipped by students whose behaviour must seem irrational from that very point view. However, the discipline of economics, based on models derived from such fallacies, is simply unattractive to potential students who want to understand real – not abstract – markets and economic processes, and for whom the choice of education is one of the most important parts of choosing their personal 'meaning of life'.

Paradigm Shift Ahead?


Along which lines are economics to be reformed? I tend to think of the need to redo the economics discipline in Kuhnian terms. Within this framework, the recognition and acknowledgement of persistent anomalies brings scientific paradigms into crisis and eventually leads to their collapse. Neoclassical economics – as other (doomed?) theories – has made many add-on theories in order to claim empirical validity. However it is the basic ‘anomalies’ – real-life phenomena that cannot be explained adequately by the core theory  – which reflective students are dissatisfied with. The failures of solving these puzzles are off course linked with the limited usefulness (sometimes simply uselessness) of neoclassical axioms. The rational maximising agent, perfect information, perfect competition, and equilibrating forces ensuring efficiency are all significant ones. The ‘note but ignore’ warnings accompanying these concepts in introductory textbooks simply underline the limited usefulness of the theory.


But if a paradigm is to fall, something else must be in its place. Hodgson argues that the problem is that 'heterodox critics of neoclassicism have failed to develop a substantial alternative theory that addresses the question of individual agency and choice that should be part of any viable analysis’ [2]. However, while one can be basically sympathetic to the viewpoint that the task of developing a new theory that show superiority to neoclassical economics is an urgent priority, it also seems unrealistically ambitious. Who has a unified grand theory these days? One cannot expect a single unified theoretical alternative to substitute for neoclassical economics. The reality of economic life in its totality is complex and probably no single theory can be capable of analysing it. Rather, a 'paradigm' of pluralist economics has to replace the current neo-classical dominance.

Learning from the Other Social Sciences

Therefore there is an urgent need to see ‘economics’ as a number of theories and to acknowledge these theories as a part of the larger family of social sciences. Clever mainstream economists acknowledge that they cannot deal with everything that constitutes their models. For example such economists acknowledge that ‘welfare functions’ must be left to specialists of social ethics (or politicians). Similarly, as an example, economists should leave issues of (economic) behaviour to sociologists.


Some economists say that while economics is all about choice, sociology is about how actors have no choices to make! However this is only true for poor economics and poor sociology. Good sociology (and good economics) avoid both pitfalls. Unfortunately too few economists adopt similarly sophisticated views of social actors – if they did, their models would be useless. It is evident, however, that for economic actors – as for example education-seekers – price and quality considerations (in the narrow sense) is not the highest-ranking priority.


Economics must learn from the other social sciences, not only in how for example to perceive of actors, but also in how to approach their field of analysis. The theories constituting other social science disciplines are often mostly tailor-made for the problems and issues chosen for analysis. Introductory textbooks and courses in politics are often structured around the political problems within different spheres of units and institutions: internationally, nationally, parliamentary etc. Likewise standard textbooks in sociology are structured around social process and human behaviour affiliated with different institutions: family, class, workplace, religion, organisations, education etc. To analyse these processes students of sociology and political sciences are introduced to the rival strands of theories and approaches within their respective disciplines and to the ‘grand old men’ from which these strands of theories originate.

Towards a Problem-Oriented, Pluralist Discipline


Economics should move from a doctrine-centred to a problem-centred discipline [3]. Students will begin to return when introductory economics evolves around empirical problems that can be interpreted and explained from the competing theoretical standpoints. Problems must be divided into those that exist globally, nationally, within financial communities, in labour relations etc. Also they are to be divided into those problems that are affiliated with different issues such the environment, gender, economic crises, innovation etc. Economic problems must come first and the theories and approaches second [4]. Theoretically, students should be introduced to the main agenda-setting beast and creatures within the zoo of economics. And the history of economic thought should be taken seriously [5].


In conclusion there is hope for a post-autistic economics, but this hope will not realised without the conscious effort of those involved with the teaching of the discipline. Agenda setting journals and other key institutions controlling the discipline are hard places to start. Auditoriums, on the other hand, will not be filled again until something is done about the curriculum. If the discipline of economics has ambitions of attracting students, it needs rethinking along the lines introduced above. If students could be educated in this manner, broad minded, more sophisticated economists could slowly begin to 'capture' and reform the key economics institutions. In this way, the move towards a post-autistic economics must start with reforming education.


1.       These countries ‘experienced a substantial decline in undergraduate degrees in economics from 1992 through 1996, followed immediately by a modest recovery’, although this recovery did not bring numbers back to 1992 levels. John J. Siegfried and David K. Round, "International Trends in Economics Degrees During the 1990s", Journal of Economic Education, Summer 2001: 203-218.

2.       Geoffrey M. Hodgson, "Theoretical substance should take priority over technique", post-autistic economics review, issue no. 14, June 21, 2002, article 5.

3.       See Peter Dorman, "Doctrine-centered versus problem-centered economics", post-autistic economics review, issue no. 14, June 21, 2002, article 3.

4.       Influential economics professors from my own university have expressed similar views in the Danish media. However, just as progressive as they must seem to the outside world, just as conservative they are, when it comes to reforming economics teaching at our own university. Protests from students (and progressive teachers) are either ignored or brushed off as 'misunderstandings'. See also, p. 12f (In Danish).

5.       The curriculum for ‘Economics as Social Science’ (ECOP1001), Department of Political Economy, University of Sydney shows beautifully how such a pluralist economics course can be constructed. Marxian, Neoclassical, Institutional and Keynesian economics are introduced and these theoretical viewpoints are then used to discuss issues of the state, gender, race, class, the environment, post-industrial society, alternative political economic systems as well as different methodologies and ideologies attached to each theoretical strand. Unfortunately the elaborate course outline has been removed from their homepage. A short description can be seen at