The economics curriculum at UCT: Part I

It would be no exaggeration to say that I have taken a critical interest in UCT’s economics curriculum for over fifteen years, and some of the associated dissatisfaction has shaped my career and approach to the discipline as a whole. As an undergraduate majoring in economics I was bored stiff for the first two years by being taught how to regurgitate graphs and solve equations from American textbooks. I seriously thought of quitting – this was not what I had signed-up for. There were some useful ideas about the functioning of markets and individual behaviour, but they were so obviously crude, decontextualised and evidently infused with free-market, anti-poor (pro-rich) ideology that as a student it was not possible to separate what was useful from what was irrelevant, implausible or ideological.

For example, minimum wages were stated as definitively reducing employment (with no reference to possible effects on effort or aggregate demand), but higher taxes on the rich were stated as negatively affecting economic activity (without any reference to benefits from public expenditure or reduced inequality).

Economist readers might want to note that this was 10 years after publication of Akerlof and Yellen’s paper on efficiency wages. It was 5 years after publication of Card and Krueger’s landmark book on minimum wages, challenging the ‘conventional wisdom’ on the minimum wage in economics with empirical evidence. I had to find that book in the library on my own to get an alternative view. Scanning library shelves also led me to Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, which introduces the notion of conspicuous consumption, and JK Galbraith’s History of Economic Thought.

Our lecturers did little to assist: they were mostly graduate students, rushing to get through material that they did not have the incentive, inclination, or intellectual foundations, to critically evaluate or present differently. Only in the third year electives did I finally find a reasonable amount of intellectual stimulation, evidence of alternative views and explicit reference to the South African context.

For this reason, I am sympathetic to the recent criticism of UCT’s curriculum by Ihsaan Bassier. He notes, among other things, that:

“I find myself at the end of my undergraduate degree without the tools to interrogate the economic situation surrounding me”.

“Critical economic thinking is simply not taught during an economics undergraduate degree. The department attempts to push mathematical concepts, but only succeeds in promoting rote learning, characteristic of a production centre for ideology.”

Such concerns can be located in broader, international student movements to change the undergraduate curriculum. In general, I support those movements as well. However, they have a tendency of conflating a number of important issues: ideology, academic incentives, bureaucratic obstacles, fetishisation of quantitative methods and the problematic status of economics as a ‘science’.

Students are driven by a well-founded instinct that something is wrong, but they struggle to decipher what the causes are. In my view this is entirely understandable given that undergraduates cannot be expected to have a uniformly better understanding of the discipline than those teaching them! But muddling of issues is often used by those favouring the status quo to deflect otherwise legitimate criticism. The points I make below can be applied as much at Harvard or Oxford as at UCT, because they pertain to deep problems with economics as a discipline and universities as institutions, but I will use UCT as my working example – having studied and lectured there.

The situation at UCT

When I returned to UCT as a Master’s student, five years after my undergraduate degree, then ten years later as a lecturer and PhD candidate, not much had changed. Bassier’s descriptions sound entirely correct to me (and I’m not the only one). But being exposed to the better graduate curriculum, and the inner workings of department and faculty – as well as their institutional histories – provided a more nuanced perspective on the reasons. It is these I intend to explore here.

The fundamental source of the problems with the undergraduate curriculum is that it is not oriented toward providing a rounded introduction to economics that will serve students well after graduation. To the extent it has a deliberate orientation, it is toward selecting (sometimes preparing) a very small proportion of the undergraduate population for postgraduate study using minimum time and effort of permanent faculty above lecturer level. In this sense, I believe, it also does not provide a good return for the money paid by society at large or parents. Fortunately for the university, the poor education provided is offset by the very low levels of accountability in academia (as regards teaching and curriculum quality) and the positive signalling value a degree from UCT still provides in the labour market.

The end result of this orientation has typically been to promote a problematically simplistic neoclassical curriculum, taught by students or junior staff using textbooks from the United States, that has little substantive engagement with the South African context. It produces graduates who think they understand economics, when they barely have a grasp of its crudest tools and ideologies – that even then are often two decades out of date. They think that minimum wages and taxes on the rich are bad as a matter of theoretical proof or empirical fact, even while the discipline itself has been moving on from such dubious, ideologically-selected claims since at least the end of the Cold War.

In this sense, because it effectively promotes a particular ideology, the curriculum has at times merited the description ‘neoliberal’. That term is often used too loosely by critics, however, and should be distinguished from the term ‘neoclassical’. Modern economics in all its main variants is neoclassical: it uses quantitative methods to analyse economic phenomena as a function of maximising behaviour by individuals and firms through market mechanisms.[1] I do not believe that is always a good thing, but it is the present state of affairs.[2]

The excessive emphasis on quantitative methods

In that regard, one critique of the UCT curriculum is that it is too quantitative. In my experience, the extent and nature of the quantitative aspects have varied, but in general I think the criticism is well-founded. For a start, for mathematically-minded students the material is neither challenging nor engaging; it does not go much beyond a first year mathematics or statistics course. Students from more mathematical degrees would often take economics courses for easy marks.

Second, and arguably the critical point, only a very small minority of students actually find application of these methods provides them insight into economic concepts and phenomena. While some academics like to cite a correlation between students’ understanding of economic concepts and quantitative ability (as measured by test scores), my experience has been that this typically reflects individual student ability and effort; it does not reflect the fact that solving optimisation problems helps most undergraduates to understand important economic concepts or phenomena.

Where does this approach to undergraduate economics come from? South African economists have traditionally been quite poorly trained in quantitative methods, so I do not believe that it reflects a local preference. Rather, it is simply what is convenient and uncontroversial: use an internationally popular textbook, with pre-prepared questions, solutions and other support. That requires much less work for the course convenors and lecturers, and once established as the base curriculum can easily be delegated to senior students or junior staff. No deep knowledge of the discipline or local context is required. In terms of money obtained against cost – the driving force of too many university departments these days – large undergraduate classes taught by part-time staff are cash cows.

In Part II and III I will pick-up on these two broad issues: the inherently problematic nature of textbooks, and the limited incentives for academics to put effort into undergraduate curricula or teaching. I will also discuss the ideological inclinations of academic economists, some history of this at UCT, and mention some lessons from the three undergraduate courses I taught (history of economic thought; public sector economics; and, quantitative methods) – one of which has been cited as showing that the UCT curriculum is not so problematic. Finally, I will consider the normative question: what should a South African economics curriculum contain?

To be continued…

[1] The term is also confusing because of the oft-used contrast between ‘neoclassical macroeconomics’ and ‘Keynesian macroeconomics’. In reality, modern Keynesian macroeconomics uses neoclassical methods, and a lot of neoclassical macroeconomics contains Keynesian assumptions!

[2] It is also worth noting that modern economics has begun to relax many of the dubious assumptions criticised by the likes of Veblen back in 1899: fixed preferences, perfect rationality and foresight, the social desirability of market outcomes, and so forth.



Creative Commons LicenseThis work is written in my personal capacity and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Author: peripheralecon

Public sector economist, extra-mural academic

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