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The changing nature of economics and other disciplines

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By Stuart Birks

When white sliced bread was introduced it was seen as a real boon (“Chorleywood: The bread that changed Britain,” 2011). We could have large quantities at low cost, and it was initially seen as superior, being more refined. It was able to out-compete all the traditional breads and it took many years before people decided that they wanted something of higher quality. Now we again get more specialist breads and people are prepared to pay perhaps twice as much for them.

It may be that a parallel can be drawn with core university courses now. In universities, there is a major global market in core papers with increasing numbers of people wanting tertiary education. It has become a big business with significant economies of scale. The result is packaging of course material in a way that drives out smaller scale alternatives. This is centred round the textbooks. Taking the example of economics, core books are provided along with study guides, online resources, test banks, instructors’ notes and PowerPoint presentations.

It is easy to put someone, perhaps a graduate student, in front of a body of students to present the course. All the material is ready prepared and there can be little required beyond reading out the material that is provided. More could be done, but at greater effort and consequently greater cost. Provision of materials may “free up instructors’ time”, allowing them to focus on the more intellectually challenging aspects of the syllabus, but the additional subtleties which can be conveyed will not be incorporated into the packaged, homogenised assessment. There are two reasons for this. First, the extra insights are likely to be specific to individual lecturers, so cannot be expected in all presentations of the material.  Second, the method of assessment does not lend itself to such issues.

A promotional video giving points in favour of the approach can be seen at: In practice, given resource pressures on universities, the result may simply be reduced time allocated to instructors or reduced background knowledge required of instructors. Assessment, based primarily on test banks of true/false and multiple choice questions, is set up for quick and easy processing. To fit this type of assessment, the courses themselves tend to emphasise simplified points and arguments that are framed to suggest certain things are right and others are wrong. This means that it is very easy for work to be marked electronically, dramatically reducing the costs of assessment and of processing results. There may be benefits, but these are by no means guaranteed.

What are the implications for the nature of teaching? Universities are competing against each other for students. Competition is based partly on cost. Here is a product, like sliced white bread, which is much cheaper than the alternatives. Even if the quality is not quite as good, it may have such a strong price advantage that it can dominate the market. A small number of successful products can benefit also from international brand recognition and associated standardisation. With uniformity across universities, the issue of cross-crediting is largely removed. Conversely, where there is great diversity in teaching, with individual lecturers putting their own stamp on courses, cross credits can become far more problematic. There are strong incentives for this major standardisation in a rapidly growing global market with great demands for mobility and recognition of results across institutions. However, the result would arguably be a dumbing down of the discipline (in our case, economics).

A specific focus on the discipline is likely to become dominant and presented as if universally applicable. As Fairclough (1995) suggested with “ideological-discursive formations”, if there is a dominant discourse which drives out all the alternatives, it becomes seen as “the truth”, “the way to view the world”. Any alternative is then “ideological” and highly questionable. If he is correct, we are likely to find ourselves increasingly locked in to highly stylised versions of the affected disciplines, including economics.

The development may change economics in other ways also. Gabriel Egan, in a comment (Coughlan, 2013a), distinguished between the sciences, which have many right or wrong answers, and the social sciences which do not. While this means that the sciences are better suited to this form of assessment, the social sciences may be reframed and repackaged to suit, giving students the impression that they too contain many absolutes.

There is a further development which gives cause for concern. The BBC has recently published several articles on the theme of online universities (see Coughlan, 2013a; Coughlan, 2013b, 2013c). These appear to be growing very rapidly and are associated with prominent universities such as Stanford, Harvard and MIT. They can build on the foundations set through the standardisation of courses and associated additional resources, including the electronic processing of assessment. Instead of just test banks, students are now offered feedback based on the answers they give, and even guided learning designed to identify and remedy deficiencies in required skills. This is very impressive, as long as it works as promised and reflects the nature of the discipline. It is not so desirable if it requires a transformation of the discipline to fit the technology. In any event, the end result is a homogenised product with selected factoids assuming great significance, and heavy emphasis on simplified methods of thinking. The nuances, subtleties and complexities of the world would be largely set to one side, thereby becoming invisible.

Is this the future that we can expect for universities? Can we afford to ignore these trends? The presentation of pluralist approaches is particularly challenging in this environment.

Chorleywood: The bread that changed Britain. (2011). (7 June). Retrieved from

Coughlan, S. (2013a). Online university giant gets bigger. (25 February). Retrieved from

Coughlan, S. (2013b). UK universities ‘face online threat’. (11 March). Retrieved from

Coughlan, S. (2013c). Willetts urges UK universities to put courses online. (27 February). Retrieved from

Fairclough, N. (1995). Critical discourse analysis: the critical study of language. London: Longman.

From: Pp.7-8 of World Economics Association Newsletter 3(3), June 2013


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