The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

3. Desirable characteristics of an economics graduate

A first step in designing a module or curriculum is to be clear about its objectives. From our perspective as economists this may seem self-evident, but is deserving of some discussion. A starting point is to think about the nature of the product from the programme — i.e. to consider the desirable characteristics of a graduate from an economics programme. In the context of an increasing focus on the employability of graduates, this needs to take into account the expectations of typical employers of economics graduates. Notice that success in placing our graduates in employment contributes to the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) through the data regarding the job destinations of graduates (DHLE).

3.1 Disciplinary knowledge and understanding

The first objective is to produce graduates who are well-grounded in economic analysis, fulfilling the national subject benchmarks. This is an essential feature of any economics programme, and the benchmarks are discussed in section 5 below. It is also desirable for students to be exposed to a balance of theoretical and applied material — although programmes may differ in having a bias towards one or the other. Curriculum design also needs to consider the sequence in which material is presented.

3.2 Reflective and independent learners who can think like economists

Looking beyond the benchmarks, we want our graduates to be able to think like economists. This is less well-defined, but most would acknowledge that this is part of our aim in designing a programme. We would also want to produce graduates who are reflective learners and capable of independent thought and research. After all, this is the essence of what a university education is about.

This is more challenging in a world in which students become increasingly exam-oriented, and in which many students come to university from educational and cultural backgrounds that have not fostered notions of independent study. If we are to achieve this objective, we need to provide students with opportunities for independent study and research. These should be embedded within the design of the curriculum, for example through a research project or dissertation. These are discussed in the chapters in The Handbook for Economics Lecturers by Kim Marie Goldrick (2007) and Peter Smith (2016).

3.3 Graduates fit for life beyond the programme

The curriculum also needs to be able to prepare our graduates for the life after their undergraduate studies. In other words, we should see the undergraduate programme as a step that will lead into the next phase of their career path. Given the burden of debt with which they will leave our programmes, it is likely that they will want to know the ways in which their studies will provide a preparation for their intended career, and we will need to be able to articulate this.

It is worth being aware that the qualities that we wish to endue in our graduates may not correspond to the factors valued by employers in recruitment terms. A survey by the CBI in 2015 revealed that the two top qualities considered by employers were attitudes and aptitudes for work and relevant work experience or placement. Degree subject was only the third highest, followed by degree class, with university attended and foreign language capability some way behind.

Of course, one of the complications here is that there is no unique destination for an economics graduate, so the curriculum needs to be designed in such a way that it can prepare our students for multiple alternative lifepaths.

Some of our students may wish to continue their studies in economics, pursuing their studies to postgraduate level, and possibly beyond. Others may have an ambition to become professional economists. Some may wish to enter a career in finance or management. Others may enter a wide variety of other careers connected to economics to varying degrees.

In order to accommodate these different paths, the curriculum and its modules need to be flexible enough to allow graduates to exit towards these different destinations. If we were to design a programme solely for the purpose of preparing students to proceed to an MSc and then a PhD, the curriculum would look very different from one that was designed to produce graduates for employment in a range of non-specific occupations. In many cases, we want the curriculum to deliver on both, or we may run interlocking but parallel programmes with different objectives in mind.

In the past, there may have been a tendency to focus on programmes that are just the first step in a sequence ending with a PhD, or on programmes that were designed to produce professional economists. This can result in a relatively narrow focus in the curriculum. In 2016, some 60% of economics graduates from UK universities were working full time, compared with about 14% who were in further study, training or research.[note 1]

This is by no means a feature only of economics programmes, and there are many discipline-based programmes which assume that students are only interested in a single subject. This can be unfortunate, as not all students who study history become professional historians, nor do those who study chemistry all become chemists. Economics is no different in providing graduates to a range of professions. As far as curriculum design is concerned, this means that we may want to provide opportunities for students to broaden their horizons as part of their programme of study.

There is some evidence to support this. Employers have indicated that it is not uncommon for them to interview students whose knowledge and understanding of their own discipline is excellent, but who struggle when asked questions that take them out of this comfort zone.

Curriculum design can tackle this in several ways, for example by highlighting generic skills that are embedded into the curriculum and by encouraging students to participate in what has become known as the ‘co-curriculum’ — activities in which students participate outside of the formal credit-bearing programme but which enhance their employability skills. This includes the development of ‘non-academic’ skills. The curriculum can also be designed in such a way that students are able to look beyond their own discipline as part of their programme.


[1] See Kirsty Palmer (2016) "Social Science Overview" Higher Education Careers Services Unit