Saturday, August 1, 2015

Uni economics declines at hands of accountants

If you think economists have too much influence in the halls of power - or that Australia would be better off if its accountants and business people knew less about how the economy works - or that the political debate would be improved if fewer citizens were economically literate - I have good news: academically, the economists are being cut down to size.

And it's the accountants who are doing it.

While business and management courses and departments are booming, many universities are cutting back, even abandoning their teaching of economics. Faculties of economics are becoming business schools.

At the University of Sydney, the economists have been ejected from their own faculty and - along with the political economists - consigned to the outer darkness of the arts faculty (where, as it happens, they're getting more customers).

It may not be long before, to be able to study economics at uni, you'll need an ATAR (Australian tertiary admission rank) high enough to get into one of the "sandstone" universities, the Group of Eight (Go8): Australian National University, the universities of Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Queensland and Western Australia, plus Monash and UNSW.

Trouble is, the sandstone unis don't rate as well on teaching as do the newer, smaller metropolitan and regional unis. Their top priority is research - and don't believe anyone who tells you researchers make the best teachers.

The story of the decline of academic economics in Australia has been told in several papers by Dr John Lodewijks, of the University of NSW, and Dr Tony Stokes and Dr Sarah Wright, of the Australian Catholic University.

At La Trobe University in Melbourne, the school of economics has had to greatly reduce its staff, with fewer professors. Its stand-alone economics degree is no longer offered. Similar changes began at the University of Western Sydney in 2012.

Victoria University's department of applied economics has been broken up, with staff now teaching finance and international business. Economics is being subsumed within business at the University of Newcastle, University of New England, University of Tasmania and James Cook University in far north Queensland.

Griffith uni on the Gold Coast has reduced its offering in economics. Edith Cowan uni in Perth has discontinued the economics major within its bachelor of business. Its economics teaching staff has been slashed, with most of those remaining now teaching finance and quantitative methods. Curtin uni in Perth has also got rid of many economists. Even at the uni of WA a bachelor of economics is no longer offered.

As with Sydney uni, at the multi-campus Australian Catholic University economics has  been ejected from the business faculty and transferred to arts.

When I did a commerce degree at the uni of Newcastle in the late 1960s, three years of economics were compulsory. These days in business courses it's down to one year - or less.

It's clear the accountants would like to be rid of economics completely. What holds them back is that their degree would lose accreditation with the professional accounting bodies.

Over the period from 2002 to 2011, Australia's total student load grew by 40 per cent. The economics students' load rose by just 28 per cent.

From 2012, but with transitional arrangements starting in 2010, universities' enrolments of domestic students were deregulated, meaning unis could enrol as many students as they liked and also that the federal government could no longer influence the number of students studying particular subjects. Enrolments became "demand determined".

The objective of this was to ensure a higher proportion of school-leavers went on to uni. So it has involved a general lowering of ATAR cut-offs for entry into particular courses.

Despite the growth in student numbers overall as a result of the uncapping of places, the number of students studying economics actually declined between 2008 and 2013.

The overall increase in domestic undergraduate commencements was 34 per cent. Business and management numbers rose 38 per cent, and marketing and sales courses rose 39 per cent. But economics commencements fell by 7 per cent to fewer than 5400.

Between 2007 and 2014, the average ATAR cut-off for "business/commerce" (which would include economics) at non-Go8 unis fell by 7.8 points to 65.1, while the average for the Go8 rose fractionally to 89.1.

It seems that the sandstone unis are now capturing more of the able students who formerly would have gone to the newer, lesser-status metropolitan and regional universities.

And it seems all this has allowed a turning away from economics. It's likely  the subject is perceived by students as more intellectually demanding, with less well-prepared students preferring business studies. Many people think business studies is more practical and more likely to lead to a job.

University managers want to shift resources to the subjects in greatest demand from students and probably think they're more likely to get funding from businesses.

So the teaching of economics is contracting and concentrating in the group-of-eight unis. But while these are well known for their high quality research, they're not particularly noted for high quality teaching of economics.

Research has shown a negative relationship between research quality and student satisfaction with teaching. And studies of course-experience questionnaires show that the elite unis perform worse in student satisfaction with teaching than the other unis, particularly the newest ones.

It was two of the lowest ATAR unis, Australian Catholic and Western Sydney, which achieved the highest scores - 86 and 80 respectively - in the good-teaching category.

It's easy to blame an intellectually lazy younger generation. But, to some extent, the academics have brought this on themselves.

There are plenty of hard subjects at uni, but for decades economists have taught economics as though it's only the cultivation of future PhDs that matters to them, making little attempt to capture young imaginations by demonstrating the practical relevance of their dry, ever-more mathematical theories.

Trouble is, it's not only they who'll pay the price of their neglect.