The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

9. Looking beyond the discipline

For students who proceed from undergraduate studies in economics to take a Master’s degree and then follow this up by researching a Ph.D., an undergraduate programme that focuses on economics alone may provide a good preparation.  Perhaps for those who exit after the Master’s and become professional economists, an intense focus may also work well. However, for students who enter other careers, such a concentration may produce tunnel vision. Indeed, it could be argued that even for the professional economist or Ph.D., some exposure to the world beyond economics may produce a more rounded and balanced individual. The increasing move towards interdisciplinary research gives further impetus to the desirability of allowing students to look beyond their discipline, and explore the big issues of our day through different disciplinary lenses.

A curriculum can readily be designed to permit this flexibility, given earlier arguments about the ability to achieve the outcomes associated with the subject benchmarks in a subset of the units that make up a programme.

One approach is through the development of joint honours programmes that expose students to two related disciplines, as set out in some of the case studies in section 5. One disadvantage of the joint honours approach is that students may achieve the benchmark levels of knowledge and understanding in each of their two disciplines, but may not have acquired the depth needed to pursue postgraduate work in either of them.

A number of universities are beginning to think more imaginatively about how to broaden the horizons of their students by creating opportunities to be exposed to different ways of thinking about the big issues of our day.

One example is the LSE100 initiative, which is compulsory for all undergraduates at the LSE from 2010-11 onwards. The following extract from the LSE100 guidebook summarises what is on offer:

‘Whatever your degree course, LSE100 is designed to enhance your experience at the [LSE] by enabling you to complement your disciplinary training with an understanding of different ways of thinking; to learn from debating and collaborating with students from other disciplines and cultural backgrounds; and to strengthen your research and communication skills.’[1]

The LSE100 course covers a wide range of topics with contributions that present from a range of different disciplinary perspectives. It sits outside the curriculum, so is not credit-bearing, running in the Lent term of year 1 and the Michaelmas term of year 2. It is graded on a non-numeric basis, with categories of Pass, Merit, Distinction and Fail. The result appears on the student transcript, but does not contribute to degree classification.  Part of the assessment is a two-hour unseen written examination, taken outside of term time.

Another initiative was launched by the University of Aberdeen in 2010; it reshaped its curriculum ‘to produce graduates who are more rounded, better informed and more intellectually flexible’.[2]  The reforms aimed to maintain the ‘quality and depth of the traditional Scottish degree’, but at the same time expand the range of choice open to students. In the first and second years of their programme, students can choose either to ‘study around [your] core subject to gain breadth and context; add a language, a science or business study as an extra subject … or choose from a range of new multidisciplinary course based on real world problems’.[3]

This is an example of encouraging diversification and exposure to new ways of thinking that is embedded within the curriculum, rather than sitting alongside. The Scottish system of four-year degrees makes this an especially attractive way of offering choice and diversity, as there is less pressure to fill the curriculum with disciplinary units.

An example in England is the University of Southampton, which has embarked on a Curriculum Innovation Programme. This is also aimed at encouraging students to escape from their disciplinary silos and broaden their horizons by taking units away from their home discipline and to enhance the research-led nature of teaching by introducing students to some of the interdisciplinary research being undertaken in the institution, such as climate change, web science and sustainability. A range of units is being developed, to be delivered and assessed in innovative ways, with the objective that all students from 2012 entry onwards will be able to choose from a menu of optional units at some point during their studies.[4]