George Osborne’s PR appointment at the University of Manchester encourages lazy economic thinking

The syllabus is failing, and the former chancellor won't change that


As if five jobs weren’t already enough, It was announced today that the former chancellor George Osborne has been appointed as an honorary professor of economics at the University of Manchester.

As an honorary professor, Osborne will not be leading any courses but will be expected to deliver guest lectures. The appointment  of the former chancellor, an economic policy maker but not an economist by training, represents a critical decision by the university and makes a bold statement about the way we wish approach the teaching of economics at Manchester.

At the Post-Crash Economics society (PCES), we have been campaigning for a more real world focused economics syllabus, so we welcomed Mr Osborne’s comments made in a recent interview with Research:

“…my criticism of economics teaching in Britain is that it’s become a bit too science-like and a bit too theoretical. It’s been forgotten that economics is dealing with human beings and the interaction between human beings, and that it’s quite difficult sometimes to discern human motives. People don’t always look for the ‘maximum utility’.”

Given that one of the main issues that PCES and the rest of the student movement is campaigning for in our economics education is for more real world application, Osborne clearly shares some common ground with our efforts for this part of curriculum reform.

PCES welcomes economic policy practitioners into the economics department who recognise that more real world application is needed, and who seek to challenge the unrealistic assumptions the models that we are taught often make. That said, we do not think the introduction of policy makers into our department goes anywhere near enough towards solving the problem.

As well as being divorced from the real world, economics degrees are narrow, uncritical and do not give students sufficient tools and skills to deal with contemporary economic problems. Economics degrees currently train students in Neoclassical methods, focusing on individuals and their utility maximisation, rather than encouraging them to critically engage with a range of schools of thought, and making informed independent decisions about which methodologies are most appropriate for our modern world.

While the university has stated that Osborne’s position will be unpaid, we still argue that this is a questionable prioritisation for the university. Time and resources should be devoted to expanding the economics syllabus with a variety of policy makers and academics.

Osborne’s track record demonstrates that he, like the economics curriculum at Manchester, doesn’t take a holistic approach to the economy. While Osborne was Chancellor, fiscal economic policy in the UK became very focused on GDP and unemployment levels which do not take into account inequality, health indicators, educational standards, environmental degradation, job security and many other things that are essential parts of the economy.His austerity policies and legacy have received much criticism from academics and economists for worsening the economic recovery.

The appointment has also been viewed as a development of the Northern Powerhouse agenda, with the university representing a bastion of cutting-edge research in the ‘beating-heart’ of the project. However, this project is very city and business focussed and lacks a holistic view about the wider impacts.

We would also like to raise the question of whether or not there was a consensus from those in the economics department and school of social sciences on Osborne’s appointment. Previous decisions appear to be taken in a very undemocratic way. Input from students (who are paying £9,000 a year to be taught by these appointees let’s not forget) is not taken into considerations, nor is feedback from established teachers and academics with a small few making the decisions regardless of the feedback from those who the decisions affect most. This brings to question the motivations of those  within the Economics department at UoM and their commitment to a quality education.

We hope that Mr Osborne will remain consistent with his ambition ‘to pull us away from the ultra-theoretical, model-based approach, to try to get people to think about public-policy decisions in the economic sphere’. and that his appointment is the beginning of the Economics department beginning to take seriously our criticisms of their failing syllabus.

Francesca Rhys-Williams and Jack Hughes are writing on behalf of the Post-Crash Economics Society at the University of Manchester

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