Monday, June 11, 2018

Economists: male, upper class, out of touch

Could there ever be a shortage of economists? And if there were, would that be a bad thing?

At the risk of being drummed out of the economists’ union, it wouldn’t be a big worry of mine.

What I do find of concern is the decline in the number of students studying economics at school and university, as outlined by the Reserve Bank’s Dr  Jacqui Dwyer in a recent speech.

Why should people study economics? Well, as the world’s greatest female economist, Joan Robinson – a contemporary of Keynes – famously said, “the purpose of studying economics is not to acquire a set of ready-made answers to economic questions, but to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists.”

Too true. But Dwyer offers a more positive sales pitch: “Economics is relevant to us all. Every day our lives are affected by economic decisions – ones we make personally and ones that are made by others.

“Economics is about how individuals and societies choose to allocate their limited resources to meet their needs and wants. It’s about how we respond to incentives, make trade-offs, weigh up costs and benefits – and how we decide what is efficient and [sometimes] what is fair.”

I’ve been known to find fault with the performance of economists on the odd occasion, but Dwyer is dead right to say economics “contains some powerful concepts and useful frameworks”.

At its best, economics “can help us better understand the choices involved in many personal decisions we make, and better understand the economic conditions and policies that affect our lives”.

If economics is relevant to daily life, and economic literacy brings benefits to society, how widely is it studied at school and university? Short answer: much less than it was.

Dwyer says that year 12 enrolments in economics have fallen by about 70 per cent over the past 25 years. In NSW the decline has been greater, beginning in the early 1990s when economics was displaced by the introduction of business studies, a subject Dwyer diplomatically refers to as “less analytically demanding”. The name of a Disney character comes to mind.

In 1991, economics was the third most popular subject choice in NSW, surpassed only by English and maths. It was taught in nearly all high schools. These days, it’s taught in less than a third of NSW government schools (many of them selective schools) and a little over half of non-government schools (particularly independent schools).

Back in the day, there were roughly equal numbers of males and females, whereas today males outnumber females roughly two to one. Dwyer says this gender imbalance is worse even than for the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths.

“So over the course of a generation, there has been a pronounced fall in the size and diversity of the economics student population at Australian high schools,” Dwyer says.

At university, Dwyer’s figures are, on their face, better news: the number of economics enrolments have been fairly constant since the early 1990s, falling only slightly since 2001.

But this isn’t so reassuring when you remember that, over the 15 years to 2016, total under-grad and post-graduate enrolments have grown at the average rate of more than 3 per cent a year.

The average annual rate of growth in enrolments has been about 3.6 per cent for banking and finance, 2.75 per cent for management and commerce, and even about 2.5 per cent for STEM, but a small negative for economics.

It’s not known whether this decline represents reduced demand for economists in the job market. But for those who are economically literate, a clue is that graduate starting salaries are higher for economics students than for those taking business-oriented subjects.

I wonder if the apparent decline in economics is partly just the unis’ greater marketing emphasis in naming their degrees. “Finance”, for instance, is actually a specialisation within economics. And banking, management, commerce and accounting are so theory-light that many such degrees would be beefed up intellectually with a fair bit of economics (as was my own commerce degree).

One strange fact is that of the many fewer unis still offering economics, more than half of those that do are in NSW and the ACT.

But the biggest cause for concern are the signs of diminishing diversity among uni students of economics. The proportion of females has fallen to about a third. And well over half of uni economics students are in the top quarter of socio-economic status, with only about 10 per cent in the bottom quarter. It’s similar, but not quite so extreme, for high school economics students.

If you rank the relevant uni degrees according to the proportion of students from high socio-economic status families, economics comes well ahead of banking and finance, then management and commerce, which is well ahead of STEM.

Oh, dearie me. This may explain a lot.