Extended Case Study: Teaching of Economics to European Studies & Language Students

Contact: Frank Brouwer
London Metropolitan University
Published March 2004

Introduction

This paper draws on my experience of teaching economics to European Studies students since 1990, and, more recently, my experience of teaching economics to students on a range of under-graduate programmes (note 0). I will not focus on one module in particular, but on two case studies. Both I believe help make economics accessible to non-subject specialists, integrate a variety of economic perspectives and encourage critical thinking. The first case study will look at the use of computer-assisted learning on a first-year module entitled 'Introduction to Globalisation'. The second case study examines how comparative analysis combined with a historical-institutionalist perspective can be relevant for European Studies students.

Case Study 1: Introduction to Globalisation

A central aim of this module is to increase economic literacy and critical thinking. Every week students attend a one-hour lecture followed by a seminar. In contrast to the more abstract nature of traditional economics principles courses, this 12-week module directly engages non-specialist students via reference to various contemporary controversies surrounding different processes of globalisation. For example, one topic considers the question 'is global inequality increasing or decreasing'? When looking at income inequalities, students learn how economists measure gross domestic product (GDP) and become aware of the limitations of GDP per capita as a measure of welfare. They then investigate the use of other measures such as the Human Development Index, the Gender Development Index, the Gender Empowerment Index and the Human Poverty Indices as developed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Given that the gender balance of students on the course is almost equal, these indicators do help bring everyone into group discussions. To bring these indicators to life, the course is supported by WebCT. Lecture notes are placed on-line and are linked to the relevant websites (e.g. www.undp.org) where students can access country statistics from the latest Human Development Report. The UNDP site provides an excellent visual presentation (see: www.undp.org/hdr2003/flash.html) that shows how countries have developed over time on certain indicators.

In relation to the above question as to whether the gap between rich and poor is narrowing or widening, a few observations can be made. A trend rise in income per capita in China affects the absolute numbers of those on very low incomes globally and China is frequently used to present a picture of narrowing income differentials between rich and poor. In contrast, some areas such as sub-Saharan Africa, have witnessed a worsening in income performance during the last decade. On present trends they will not secure the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) within the target time. Comparing these countries with richer ones confirms a widening gap. The use (and abuse) of data to support arguments has led to lively debates in the seminars.

Overall, a globalisation course is enhanced by the fact that students come from a variety of national and socio-economic backgrounds (note 1).

The course does provide additional challenges. One concerns assessment. The course is assessed by one group presentation and one 2000-word essay amounting to 40 and 60 per cent of the total mark respectively. The course runs in both semesters. However, there are around 35 students in the first semester but over 170 students in the second. Accordingly, I have had to rethink the group presentation component. During seminars, students work in small groups with a view to submitting their presentation 'online' rather than in front of their peers during the seminar. Given the need to comply with certain regulations, the current practice is that all groups submit a disc of their work at a given deadline. This is then uploaded onto the module's WebCT for everyone else to view. Students are required to identify a controversy surrounding a specific topic, provide an evaluation of the arguments and provide links to relevant websites. Students must provide some comment or summary of what one can expect if they click on a chosen website.

This relates to the second challenge, namely the reading material for this course. Not only is there an ever-growing literature (often more suitable for more advanced levels) there are the usual budget constraints in the library. Accordingly, the internet does provide an invaluable additional source of material. For example, campaigns by non-governmental organisations can help enhance critical thinking. The key issue is how to distinguish the relevant from the irrelevant. A solution here is to provide a list of suggested website in addition to a guided reading list of selected books and journal articles (also available online). The summaries of chosen websites that are built into the group presentation component are meant to encourage students to critically select material and develop reviewing skills.

Case Study 2: Economics for European Studies

The second case study concerns a second-year under-graduate module I teach entitled 'The Economics and Politics of Europe'. The module develops comparative analysis. Contemporary European economies are placed in historical perspective, with comparisons made to the post-war boom era (1950s-1970s). The aim is to highlight changes and continuities. Analytically this is influenced by the French regulation school but also draws on a wider range of literature including Schumpeterian studies emphasising technological innovation (note 2). Accordingly, students are made aware of different approaches to economic growth and change (including core neo-classical models). The greater pluralism in economic perspectives does in my view make economics more attractive and relevant (note 3).

In addition to comparisons between now and then, national economies in Europe are also compared with each other. A key aim is to identify differences in key institutional features such as corporate governance, industry-finance relations, labour relations, state economic policies and in education and training. Central questions inform the course:

  • How are differences in economic performance between countries to be explained?
  • Are Europe's economies converging to a single model of capitalism?

I try to encourage a more investigative approach to these questions by providing a handout near the start of the course. This can be used as a frame of reference (rather than a rigid structure) and students can add to the boxes via their readings, lecture notes and seminar discussions. A completed handout can form the basis of discussion in a later seminar. An edited version of the current handout is given below:

  Country A:
1950s-70s
Country A:
1980s-Present
Country B:
1950s-70s
Country B:
1980s-Present
Government policies
  • Macroeconomic
  • Exchange rate
  • Industrial
Central bank
       
Corporate governance
  • Management structure
  • Employee participation
       
Finance-Industry links
  • Role of banks
  • Stock exchange
       
Industrial Relations
  • Employer organisations
  • Trade unions
  • Wage bargaining
       
Education & training        

There is a significant body of literature comparing national varieties of capitalism (note 4). These often emphasise differences and similarities between, for example, 'Anglo-Saxon capitalism' and 'Rhineland capitalism'. It encourages students to think if we can reasonably speak of a 'French economy' or an 'Italian economy' or indeed, about a 'European economy'. Such comparisons is applicable to policy debates on the future of the EU (e.g. the Lisbon Agenda and the 'knowledge society', or the idea of 'social Europe' compared to more market oriented or neo-liberal approaches).

Interdisciplinary teaching within the module complements the interdisciplinary approach across the European Studies degree. National economic developments, for example, are complemented with content provided on politics modules (e.g. political parties, electoral systems, and social movements).

In sum, the module integrates the following features:

  • comparative analysis (in historical time and between countries)
  • institutions (into which markets are 'embedded')
  • pluralism (by introducing different perspectives)
  • interdisciplinarity (within the module and between modules)

Finally, I can recommend an excellent final-year module that was given in a key language (e.g. economics/politics in Spanish or some other language). Students presented, in the target language, projects they had done on their semester or year abroad. Both language and social science staff were present. Sadly, it has been cut from the curriculum. This would be of enormous benefit to applied translation courses.

Conclusions

As with many interdisciplinary area studies degrees that combine languages with other subjects, only a limited amount of economics modules are possible to take. On the one hand, European Studies students are keen to develop some degree of economic understanding. They see this as necessary for deeper understanding of, for example, European integration. Economics informs a host of debates ranging from the euro in the global finance to the regional inequalities within the EU. On the other hand, many are apprehensive about the abstract (and possibly mathematical) nature of some traditional first year courses in economics. Textbooks vary in quality, but students sometimes complete a course assuming that this is 'economics' and have limited awareness of a range of perspectives in the subject discipline. Contrast that to first year politics, which may focus on comparative ideologies. I am not convinced that standard economics textbooks are the best way of introducing the subject to non-subject specialists.

If first-year economics can be seen as relevant, it provides an incentive to carry on with further modules in the subject. Excessive focus on abstract models devoid of historical context at preliminary level may discourage students from taking further economics modules (especially if more advanced modules are not compulsory as has been the trend in the last few years). This is not to deny a place for mainstream neo-classical modules of a more technical nature, but perhaps these are best left to a later stage. However, economics would be better all round if alternative schools of economic thought were not always crowded out of the curriculum (note 5). If the number of economics modules a student can take are relatively few in number, I think it is necessary to integrate comparative perspectives within modules.

The above introductory course is new and explicitly applies economic concepts to current controversies in globalisation. I will monitor closely, with the help of student evaluations, if the course succeeds in improving economic literacy and critical thinking. When it comes to the second year course on comparative European economies, I recognise important limitations. I fear that there may be a danger of being over elaborate (especially for a single module) and am sensitive to the different needs of a very mixed-ability student cohort. The literature is often directed at higher level study and efforts must be made to ensure key articles are not only available but also accessible. I am sure the course can be improved and welcome suggestions, but I do believe that the ingredients of comparison, historical time, plurality of economic perspectives, interdisciplinary teaching and computer assisted learning not only improves economic understanding, but makes economics relevant and rewarding.

More case studies: Curriculum & Content

Notes

0. In 2002, the University of North London (UNL) merged with London Guildhall University (LGU) to form London Metropolitan University. A large part of my teaching was on a single honours European Studies degree at UNL. Some significant structural changes have taken place. Since the merger European Studies is now offered as a joint degree in the Department of Law, Governance and International Relations. I have moved to the Department of Economics, Finance and International Business. Although I no longer teach on the European Studies under-graduate programme, I continue to teach on the MA Contemporary European Studies degree.

1. Over 25 nationalities are present on the course and this raises some issues for teaching. First, one cannot assume knowledge of UK developments, institutions or personalities. Second, students accustomed to different educational practices tend to have different propensities to participate in class, notwithstanding any language barriers.

2. Boyer, R. and Saillard, Y. eds. (1995) Regulation Theory: The State of the Art, London: Routledge. See also: Crouch, C. and Streeck, W. ed. (1997) Political Economy of Modern Capitalism: Mapping Convergence & Diversity, London: Sage. Herman van der Wee's book Prosperity and Upheaval: The World Economy 1945-1980 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986) does provide an accessible acccount of many perspectives to post-war growth ranging from the growth accounting to post-Keynesian and long-wave theories.

3. The case for pluralism in economics is put in the on-line post-autistic economic review ( http://www.btinternet.com/~pae_news/join.htm ). In a philosophical sense it is claimed that the neo-classical school is autistic. Nevertheless, I must admit to be uncomfortable with the label 'autism' given that we are dealing with economics pedagogy. Several articles put the case for pluralism. For example, see: Geoff Harcourt, "A Good Servant but a Bad Master" post-autistic economics review, issue no. 6; 8 May 2001, http://www.btinternet.com/~pae_news/issue6.htm .

4. See, for example: Albert, M. (1993) Capitalism Against Capitalism, London: Whurr Publishers; Berger, S. and Dore, R. eds. (1996), National Diversity and Global Capitalism, Ithaca: Cornell University Press; Hollingsworth, J. R. and Boyer, R. (1997) Contemporary Capitalism: The Embeddedness of Institutions, Oxford: CUP; Kitschelt, H. et. al. eds. (1999) Continuity and Change in Contemporary Capitalism, Cambridge: CUP; Coates, D. (2000) Models of Capitalism: Growth and Stagnation in the Modern Era, Cambridge: Polity Press; Esping-Anderson, G. and Regini, M. (2000) Why Deregulate Labour Markets? Oxford: OUP; Whitely, R. (2000) Divergent Capitalisms: The Social Structure and Change of Business Systems, Oxford: OUP; Hall, P. and Soskice, D. eds. (2001) Varieties of Capitalism: The Institutional Foundations of Comparative Advantage, London: OUP. A more suitable textbook for this level can be Thompson, G. ed. (2001) Governing the European Economy, London: Sage/Open University. See also: Keegan, W. (1992) The Spectre of Capitalism, London: Vintage and Hutton, W. (1995) The State We're In, London: Vintage.

5. See Mair, D. and Miller, A. (1991) A Modern Guide to Economic Thought: An Introduction to Comparative Schools of Thought in Economics, Aldershot: Edward Elgar; Canterbery, E. R. (1995) The Literate Economist: A Brief History of Economics, New York: Harper Collins; Prychtiko, D. ed. (1998) Why Economists Disagree: An Introduction to the Alternative Schools of Thought, New York: SUNY Press; Hodgson, G. (2001) How Economics Forgot History: The Problem of Historical Specificity in Social Science, London: Routledge; Dowd, D. ed. (2002) Understanding Capitalism: Critical Analysis from Karl Marx to Amartya Sen, London: Pluto. Robert Heilbroner's The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times and Ideas of Great Economic Thinkers, 7th ed., (London: Penguin, 1995) remains a classic.

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