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…

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
British musician Mark Ronson arrives for the UK premiere of the film 'Mortdecai'
music
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
Sport
footballBrighton vs Arsenal match report
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has spoken about the lack of opportunities for black British actors in the UK
film
News
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Ashdown Group: Junior Developer - Cirencester - £29,000

£25000 - £29000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group have be...

Ashdown Group: Graduate Data Analyst - Essex - £25,000

£23500 - £25000 per annum + Training: Ashdown Group: Graduate Data analyst/Sys...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Account Manager

£16000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Graduate Account Manager is r...

Guru Careers: Graduate Account Manager / Sales Executive

£18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Account Man...

Independent Dating
and  

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

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us