Global Development Institute Blog

The University of Manchester’s Post-Crash Economics Society and Rethinking Economics recently launched a report examining whether the economics curriculum is fit for purpose in an increasingly turbulent twenty-first century. One of GDI’s undergraduate students – Sammi Dé – was involved in the conception and writing of the report, using what he has learned during his studies to proffer constructive critique of orthodoxies within mainstream economics. In the following blog post, Sammi provides some background to the report and his personal academic journey. 

by Sammi Dé, Undergraduate student at the Global Development Institute

When I think back to learning economics at A-Levels, I recall (more often than not) being left dissatisfied and wholly frustrated with the rigid ways of thinking that the discipline encouraged. How could such complex societal issues as climate change and underdevelopment be confined to and solved through this simple set of incontestable models? Models that, as I grew to learn, were rooted in the ideas of economists living over 200 years ago, that repeatedly failed empirical testing and could only be applied to a limited number of Western contexts.

Studying geography alongside this, I was exposed to two completely different narratives in each class. In economics, differences in global development statuses could be broadly outlined by the ‘comparative advantages’ of Northern actors and the inelasticities of their primary products. In geography, however, colonisation and environmental determinism were to blame. Acknowledging these contrasts, I grew conscious of how the current sets of ‘laws’ through which we conceptualise our economy often simply permit us to disregard the complex histories of our current modes of operation. The pervasive theories that discount such qualitative complexities present our market economy as an efficient mechanism with little space to be questioned or re-designed. Further, the pedestal the discipline is put on against other social sciences (evidenced, for example, through its presence on the Nobel Prize roster) often perpetuates problematic misconceptions of economics as ‘hard science’. These perspectives do little but naturalise our crucially political modes of operation, which require deeply intricate and contextualised levels of analysis. The more I studied the subject, the more I learned that economics can never truly rid itself of all uncertainties or complexities. Unlike our hard sciences, it can never be truly ‘global’. To attempt to rid economics of its ‘social’ side, therefore, is to misunderstand what it is at its core.

Despite its evident present limitations, the real-world implications of economics cannot be denied. My love for the discipline persisted largely because of this. The policy that shapes the world around us will continue to be driven by the prevailing economic ideas of the time, however wrong they may be. Therefore, rather than abandoning the subject altogether, I continued to question and challenge the dominant conventional wisdoms being taught in the classroom, and discover new ideas that went against them.

Picking up Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics was a major part of this process, as the book turned out to be instrumental in allowing me to channel my broad frustrations into a genuine fight for change. For all the merits of the alternative economic models Raworth proposes, her writing was most crucial for me in that it validated my long-held disillusionment and painted a story of a generation-wide feeling of injustice and contempt towards this widely outdated discipline. It was also the first time I was exposed to the true extent and breadth of economics; it became clear that neoclassical thinking was only one branch of a vast ‘tree’ of perspectives. Alongside this, the book provided me with a new sense of hope and optimism, and a real vision for future progress (differentiating it from many other related books I had read). Joining Raworth’s ‘Action Lab’, I was directed towards the Post-Crash Economics Society at Manchester (I knew I would be starting my studies here the following autumn). 

After attending two of the society’s talks discussing pluralism and feminist economics, the chair, Deepti, asked me if I was interested in joining the team of four students working with Rethinking Economics to author the second Manchester economics curriculum ‘health-check’, ten years after the original, that garnered significant national media attention. I was ecstatic to have so quickly encountered a group of like-minded people, and to become a part of a project through which I could channel my passion to provoke real change. 

Writing the ‘health-check’ primarily involved analysing the economics courses available at Manchester, and then, drawing from our findings, creating key recommendations for curriculum change. Through the research, I soon discovered that the aforementioned stark differences in ‘narratives’ between disciplines at A-level do not change much at the university level. In the whole curriculum, discussions of slavery and colonialism only occur in one single module; there is no discussion of racial inequalities; sustainability is only discussed in two modules (and this is only done through the lens of ‘externalities’, a limited neoclassical idea); no mandatory modules include any insights outside of the ‘mainstream’ economic schools; interdisciplinarity is extremely limited (economics is largely taught in isolation from other social science); and qualitative research methods are completely overlooked. How can we expect any real improvement in global development trajectories if these are the conditions under which our future policymakers are taught? 

Over the writing period, I grew more and more grateful for how our Global Development course provides a uniquely wide scope of theoretical bases and contexts from which students can form their own critical judgements, and discovered how far this was from being the case for Manchester economists. In our first semester, we had already been exposed to critical approaches to epistemology and a History of Thought module that covered various thinkers from the Global South. In contrast, as stated in the report, it remains possible for economics students at Manchester “to go through [their entire] degree without once having to venture an opinion”. 

Being the only non-economics student involved in the writing process, I was thus able to provide unique insights and examples into how alternative social sciences model their teaching. Questions of diversifying, decolonising, and decarbonising the curriculum quickly became the key objectives for reform. We even used the qualitative research methods module from GDI as a ‘model’ for what we expected in the future from the economics department. The insights provided by this module showed me that it is no longer sufficient for departments to perpetuate ‘political impartiality’; no matter how ‘scientific’ mainstream economics appears to be, it must be understood as having stemmed from specific sets of value-systems, and therefore be recognised as a space open to change and updating. 

We held a report launch event on the 1st of May, where I presented a summary of the report alongside another author. The event also had a panel, workshop and keynote speech involving various guest academics (including two from GDI, whom I invited off the back of previous in-class conversations about degrowth, epistemology and doughnut economics). It was attended by various academics from the economics department, with whom we had some insightful discussions (and some notable disagreements…).

Now that the report has been written and launched, the society is now looking towards the future, where the work towards real change begins. In pushing the reach and engagement of our report, we are hoping that it will be able to provide the basis for instrumental reform to occur in Manchester and beyond. We want our findings to be foundational considerations in the university’s efforts to push sustainability and social justice. On our side, this will include campaigning for the inclusion of a new Doughnut Economics module, meeting with academics and course organisers to ensure our recommendations come to fruition, and much more, looking over into the next academic year (one new optional module has already been implemented since writing the report, but this is far from enough!). I also anticipate an increasing role being played by GDI in initiating these university-level changes; I struggle to find a more apt campaign that abides by our department’s philosophy, “where critical thinking meets social justice”.

Overcoming the increasingly positivistic nature of disciplines like economics has become a core passion of mine. I hope that, in the future, if my goals to become a professor ever manifest, I will be able to apply these experiences and past frustrations to provide a more contextually aware and just education to my students. My frustration, however, is far from limited to economics. On a broader level, I hope our efforts this year can encourage all students to remain sceptical of their learning and continue to critically approach all the content taught to them in class, no matter their discipline. Rigorous evaluations of university curriculums like the one outlined in this article cannot be limited to economics. The ways in which we can re-think and scrutinise pedagogy are constantly transforming, in an increasingly dynamic, globalised, and multi-crisis world context. 

Looking at my own department, then, my studies this year have made it clear that the future significance of global development studies/practice will depend upon the continued scrutiny of the positivistic principles often held over from theories that no longer apply. Encouraging critical approaches to development at all times will thus, in my eyes, be a crucial step towards further decolonising development practice, and orienting ourselves towards models of development that ensure social justice. Thus, we at GDI must also look introspectively (and not regard ourselves above our habitual inclinations towards the status quo), to avoid getting caught up and restrained in these dogmatic and ‘hard science’-like mentalities.

Read the report here.

Note:  This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole.

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