Manchester students man the barricades to overthrow economic orthodoxy

New group wants to revolutionise the way economics is taught throughout the world

Economics Editor

Not for the first time, students are revolting. But this time, as the saying goes, it’s different.

A rebellion by economics undergraduates at Manchester University is rattling teacups in faculty common rooms far beyond the campus. And their insurrection has won the backing of the incoming chief economist of the Bank of England, Andy Haldane.

The students are complaining about the way economics is taught and studied. They argue that Manchester, along with virtually every other academic institution around the world, has granted a monopoly to a single economics “paradigm”.

Boiled down, this is predicated on the idea that individuals in an economy will tend to behave with their financial self-interest foremost in their mind and that people generally have an unchanging view of where that interest lies. Further, it maintains that free markets are, in the main, the optimum way to ensure resources are efficiently distributed.

Mainstream academic economics, the critique continues, is dominated by theory and equation-heavy mathematical models. The students say this puts scholars in an intellectual straitjacket, discourages critical thinking and creates a “monoculture” of professional economists who all adhere to the same (questionable) basic principles.

The Manchester undergraduates have formed the Post-Crash Economics Society to put pressure on the university to offer classes on theories outside the mainstream, including schools associated with the political left, such as Marxism, as well as the libertarian right. They also want to grapple with the work of theorists of financial crashes such as Hyman Minsky and modern “heterodox” economic thinkers.

The society published its manifesto this week, with an enthusiastic forward from Mr Haldane. The document makes clear that the ambition of the Manchester students extends beyond refashioning their own university course. Their explicit goal is to propel a revolution in the discipline profession of economics itself.

Yet the old guard seem to be digging in. The economics department at Manchester this month rejected a proposal by the students to add a module on financial crashes to the undergraduate course. And Simon Wren-Lewis, economics professor at Oxford University, wrote a blog this week criticising the group’s radical objectives. Professor Wren- Lewis, one of the foremost economic critics of the Coalition’s austerity policy, is no reactionary. But he argues that mainstream approach, properly applied and understood, has proved its worth.

So who is right? The central value of economics lies in the extent to which it facilitates our understanding of the world. If non-mainstream approaches can help achieve this end then the students are right and they should, of course, be studied.

The trouble is that time is a scarce resource. Undergraduate degrees are only three to four years long. So the debate hinges on the questions of balance and merit. How much fresh material, if any, should be introduced into courses and how much of the conventional approach should be retained?

There are areas where the basic axioms of orthodox economics have proved their worth. The UK housing market is a good contemporary example. Demand is outstripping supply so prices are rocketing. But there are also areas of life where the mainstream approach has manifestly failed. The financial crisis showed the dominant theory of smooth efficiency in highly-liquid financial markets, for instance, to be nonsense.

The disgruntled students have a point when they argue that the academic economics profession became closed-minded in the years leading up to the financial crisis. Many senior economists assumed that  the major debates of the discipline had been settled. Some humility is now in order.

The task for economists is to give up on the hubristic quest for comprehensive models of economic life and to work out where different, eclectic, approaches are helpful and where they aren’t. John Maynard Keynes, who yearned for the day when economists would be as uncontroversial and as useful as dentists, would have approved of this problem-solving orientation.

But what are the prospects of such a reformation? We have an interesting test case here. The introduction of tuition fees created a market in higher education. Students can now vote with their wallets if they feel they are not getting what they want. If sufficient numbers press for change in the economics syllabus, or flock to institutions that offer it, the market should eventually respond. At least, that’s what orthodox economic theory tells us…

Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Sport
sportVan Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Life and Style
Martha Stewart wrote an opinion column for Time magazine this week titled “Why I Love My Drone”
lifeLifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot... to take photos of her farm
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
filmReview: Sometimes the immersive experience was so good it blurred the line between fiction and reality
News
i100
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Environment
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
News
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

KS1 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Ltd are seeking KS...

C# R&D .NET Developer (Algorithms, WCF, WPF, Agile, ASP.NET)

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Harrington Starr: C# R&D .NET Developer (Algori...

Year 3 Teacher needed- Worthing!

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: Look no further; this is the ...

Primary NQT Teachers

£95 - £105 per day: Randstad Education Crawley: Opportunities for NQTs for the...

Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices