The Undergraduate Economics Curriculum at the University of Cape Town: Part II

At the end of Part I of this comment on the UCT economics curriculum, I identified two further issues for immediate consideration: the nature of textbooks, and problems arising from academic incentives. The textbook issue also raises the important role of history of economic thought and economic history courses.

Problems with textbooks – and why they are particularly acute in economics

I recently finished reading Thomas Kuhn’s famous book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which is most well-known for its theory of ‘paradigm shifts’. Kuhn has some interesting commentary on the role of textbooks, which is very salient for discussions about curriculum reform.

Kuhn notes that textbooks are vehicles for conveying and endorsing the status quo in any discipline, deliberately concealing the messy histories of intellectual progress and reframing them as linear development toward superior knowledge. To quote directly, Kuhn states that textbooks are, “pedagogic vehicles for normal science”, and as a result “they have to be rewritten in the aftermath of each scientific revolution”. Although evidently problematic, Kuhn argues that this is inevitable for disciplines with established bodies of knowledge, norms and practitioners who embrace those in their day-to-day work (‘normal science’). I partly agree with him, although in general I think Kuhn’s approach is overly generous for a discipline like economics.

In the context of the current economics curriculum, note that – exactly as Kuhn would predict – there have been a number of developments that have led to new types of textbooks in economics. For example, recognition that individuals depart from perfect rationality assumptions has grown in parallel to the sub-disciplines of behavioural and experimental economics. This has led to changes in undergraduate microeconomics textbooks, as illustrated by Robert Frank’s Microeconomics and Behaviour. Frank is the economist who observed the negative effect of studying economics on cooperative behaviour. This textbook was introduced by some forward-thinking academics at UCT, but only for a short period – after which it was abandoned for reasons no-one seemed to know (when I arrived back at UCT in 2010).

More recently, the Financial Crisis of 2008 has led to an initiative to produce a new textbook that addresses the omissions of many pre-Crisis textbooks: the CORE project. Overall I think this project is a big step in the right direction. Where I have some qualms is that a couple of people involved have stated rather glibly that ‘economists’ (read: them) already had theories that explained and predicted the Crisis, so no actual revision or critical reflection is required. Rather, they argued, we just need to recognise those who were right all along…

History of economic thought and economic history

That directs us to another useful point: in a discipline with shaky foundations, like economics, we do not need to be mindless victims of Kuhnian dynamics – rewriting textbooks every decade when preceding certainties are thrown out the window. Instead, we can provide students with the ability to see the bigger picture. That stance is something that should be woven-into all courses in my opinion, but as stand-alone solutions history of economic thought courses are perfectly placed to address this. This is not just intellectually desirable but practically useful in any domain where economic analysis or decision-making is required.

I recall being struck by a comment made in a talk on the Financial Crisis by a fund manager who at the time was responsible for a trillion dollars worth of investment fund assets: he said that his undergraduate PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) degree had served him better in navigating the Financial Crisis than his Master’s and PhD degrees in economics, because the former gave him a broader perspective.

For such reasons it is entirely correct that Johan Fourie has cited the HET course at UCT as an example of a more progressive element than is recognised in Ihsaan Bassier’s original piece. However, as someone who taught on that course for two years – and contrary to Fourie’s emphasis – I found it to be the exception that very much proved the rule.

For a start, it was reintroduced by two academics who are somewhat unusual in having historically been more willing to teach undergraduates, more widely read than most (including across disciplines) and less obsessed with quantitative material.[1]

Furthermore, HET at UCT is a third year elective course and therefore comes far too late for most students in contextualising what they are learning – at least in the absence of any recognition of related issues for the preceding two years. I would estimate that less than 10% of the initial cohort take the course. It also requires skills – reading, critical thinking and writing – that are not developed in the preceding courses. The result was that students who were not coming from the PPE programme struggled to engage with the materials because in their preceding two years they had rarely had to read something other than textbooks, and never had to write a substantive essay. (More on that issue below).

Economic history courses, in which students are taught the history of economies, are also incredibly important for understanding current economic outcomes and dynamics. Furthermore, while it is something often denied or downplayed in economics, most social sciences rightly recognise the role that social context plays in determining trends in theoretical and empirical work.

One important cautionary point: teaching HET is an improvement in getting students to understand the trends and crises in economic thought, but those thinking it is inherently normatively/politically progressive may be disappointed. History of economic thought, like economic history, requires an organising perspective – and this often reflects the ideological biases of those teaching or designing the curriculum. To use economic history in South Africa as an example: prior to 1994 my sense is that a lot of this was Marxist, or at least responding to Marxist theories; after 1994 many economic history departments and courses fell by the way-side; and, some of the recent resurgence in South African economic history is due to the efforts of social conservatives at institutions that were previously intellectual bastions of apartheid. Where the pendulum will settle is currently anyone’s guess. (Well, actually it is most likely to be determined by the sources and flow of research funding – more on that another time).

Academic disincentives for (investment in) undergraduate teaching

In my view the main problem at UCT, and other institutions, that leads to a weak, ideologically distorted and locally out-of-touch, economics curriculum is the presence of weak incentives for academics to invest in undergraduates. Not ideological orientation or lack of capacity to engage with issues particularly salient to the local economy or society.

Let me start with a sympathetic view. Many students who are not majoring in economics do first- and second-year economics courses, so these undergraduate classes are very large (usually at least 300). Administration and marking – if they are done diligently – increase proportionally. Furthermore, the most ‘efficient’ way of getting one’s teaching credits is to teach the same material to two or three classes in the same day. Finally, the absence of previous investment in the curriculum means that the material is quite dull. Understandably, if you became an academic because you’re excited about intellectually stimulating and socially relevant ideas, repeating dull material to enormous classes is painful: you avoid it if you can.

The result, of course, is that ability to avoid this depends on power within the department: the buck gets passed down the line until it reaches junior academics. If there aren’t enough whose arms can be twisted, the work is given to postgraduate students.

There are exceptions, for good and bad reasons. Some academics feel sufficiently strongly about engaging with undergraduates that they do some teaching (very rare), while others do so because they are less well-equipped to teach the more quantitative material in postgraduate courses (more common).

Once this kind of equilibrium is established it is hard to change. Senior academics have greater decision-making authority, but are not engaged with undergraduate teaching so are disinclined to do anything about it. An HoD trying to get senior academics to teach undergraduates will engender a lot of hostility. And the usual departmental politics will likely undermine efforts for a collective process of curriculum reform.

There are also other consequences that are less readily observed. For example, I mentioned above that students were poorly-equipped for the HET course in their reading, writing and critical thinking abilities. This was in no small part because the department had, for a period of at least two years, chosen to make all first- and second-year assessments using multiple choice questions. The reason was simple: marking hundreds of scripts is time-consuming and raises the average workload, so it was preferable to automate everything. That changed primarily, it seemed, in response to pressure from senior academics teaching on third year courses who saw the consequences. Short essays were reintroduced to the earlier core courses (albeit that most of the writing support and marking was still done by students).

A further, critical point that emerges from examining the department’s workload allocation spreadsheet is that getting permanent academics to teach undergraduate courses would mean an increased average workload. The reason is that postgraduates on short-term contracts are very cheap by comparison to permanent academics and are used to mop-up a lot of teaching hours. This is a well-established phenomenon internationally. In South Africa, it gets taken a little further, with many senior academics making somewhat disingenuous complaints about rising departmental workloads (usually to lobby for more resources for themselves), while not revealing that most/all of the increase is shouldered by junior and contract staff.

Finally, all the above issues are compounded by the fact that financial incentives for universities as a whole do not encourage high quality undergraduate teaching. Ostensibly, one portion of public funding for universities is based on the number of graduating students, but if departments are ‘grading to a curve’ (or just passing students to get money) there is no association between this reward and teaching quality. Financial incentives ‘bind’ (in economics parlance) more at postgraduate level, where students and their funders are more discerning, and in relation to research output – which has to go through peer review.

In short: virtually all academic incentives in the current system work against curriculum reform and high quality undergraduate teaching. Even though, I would argue, that is actually where most of our academics have the best chance of adding value to society. (The social usefulness of research in economics in general, and South African economics in particular, is overrated). Looked at in this light, there is no contradiction between the presence of academics who produce work that is socially relevant and an undergraduate curriculum of the kind that has been described. In the absence of institutional cultures that place enough value on the university’s fundamental societal role in transmitting knowledge, teaching critical thinking and engaging with social challenges, no amount of rhetoric or dialogue is going to lead to fundamental improvements. Besides universities, faculties and departments deliberately intervening to change the above incentives, the only other alternatives are: reorientation of the public financing incentives; or pressure from students and those who pay their fees.

So much for the institutional challenges. In the final part of this comment, Part III, I’ll sketch what I think a new South African undergraduate economics curriculum should look like.

[1] In fact, in one year when all three of the main instructors were unavailable my understanding is that the HoD roped-in people who weren’t even academics; emphasising that departmental priorities are often centered on money-generating warm bodies rather than integrity of curricula or quality of instruction.

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Author: peripheralecon

Public sector economist, extra-mural academic

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