Research-led Teaching at Swansea

Contact: Ian Jeffries
School of Business and Economics, Swansea University
Published September 2009

The Department of Economics at Swansea University has an enviable record as regards teaching awards. I will try to shed some light on why this is so. In the process a few tips may hopefully be passed on.

The Department clearly holds teaching in high regard. It is also research-orientated and all universities are being increasing burdened with administration. Of course, all activities lay claim to precious time and so trade-offs are inevitable. But what Swansea tries to do, as much as possible, is to use research material in teaching.

My optional modules involve transitional economies (such as China and Russia) and parts of my books actually contain material given in lectures. Module assessment comments from students reflect this and the up-to-date nature of material given. One student commented: 'Highly knowledgeable and linked the different aspects of the current global financial crisis with Russia'.

One of the other things I like to do is to use my optional modules as case studies in economics. One student's module assessment comment sums this up: 'An interesting module [Transitional Economies] which gives students a chance to actually see economic theories in action'.

Other related student comments included:

'The module provided an opportunity to apply the economic thought learnt from other areas in a "real life" case study made it the most interesting module I have studied.'

My Part One theory lectures are delivered with current events in mind. Students' comments reflect this:

'The way Professor Jeffries relates the material of the course to the current financial crisis is extremely useful.'

'I like the way he used current issues to explain theory within this module as it helps for a better understanding.'

'Involving the current state the UK economy is in, with lectures, gave me a better understanding of economic topics in general.'

I have always had a passion for economic developments as they arise. Nothing better illustrates the way in which economics is an exciting subject to study than the global financial crisis (with its frequent references to the Great Depression of the early 1930s). The fact that the profession was so remiss in predicting the tempest and that there still exist disagreements about what should be done (though the pendulum has swung towards neo-Keynesianism and recognising the need to question common fundamental assumptions about individual behaviour) is, ironically, what makes economics so fantastic a subject to talk about.

The American economist and 2008 Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman takes a strongly neo-Keynesian stance, recently arguing that 'much of the past thirty years of macroeconomics was "spectacularly useless at best, and positively harmful at worst"' (The Economist, 18 July 2009, p. 11). Krugman continues in a must-read lengthy article on the website of The New York Times dated 6 September 2009:

'Few economists saw our current crisis coming, but this predictive failure was the least of the field's problems. More important was the profession's blindness to the very possibility of catastrophic failures in a market economy ... As I see it, the economics profession went astray because economists, as a group, mistook beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth.'

Krugman's strong views are food for thought indeed.

In my own field of transitional economies I cover over thirty countries and the global financial crisis has affected countries very differently:

It helps to stimulate students' interest if countries are centre stage. I pay a great deal of attention to China as a case study in part because it has weathered the financial storm relatively well. As regards the global financial crisis specifically, one aspect is China's large-scale purchase of US government securities. China has a very high savings rate and the United States a very low one.

Countries that have been particularly badly affected by the global financial include the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. These countries have currency boards (effectively fixed exchange rate regimes) and aim to meet the Maastricht criteria to join the Eurozone.

Russia is heavily dependent on energy exports. When oil and gas prices were high economic reform took a back seat, with serious consequences when the global financial crisis hit.

These examples show how theory, empirical research and teaching can be blended to make the subject of economics so exciting, even when under attack!

A word about sources in this 'information world' we live in. It is very easy to get overwhelmed with the tidal wave of information we are faced with these days. Rather than just give up, I have found that certain sources have proven to be the most useful over time and I tend to generally stick with these. The precise sources naturally depend on particular fields of study within economics and a process of trial and error is needed to find out what they are.

Rapid feedback on assigned work is vital. Student comments reflect this:

'Coursework very well placed to allow enough time to do it without clashing with other deadlines. Coursework was also good because it helped with understanding the rest of the module'.

'The lecturer's enthusiasm and wide knowledge base made the subject understandable and interesting. I would like it to be particularly noted that the way Professor Jeffries assessed the assigned essay for this module was by far the best approach I have encountered whilst studying this course. The timeliness with which I received feedback was a bonus, but it is the quality of the feedback that was particularly useful and in particular the sheet that explained what should have been included in the essay. It would be useful for such a thing to be received for every essay.'

For all those students who have been kind enough to call my lectures 'inspiring', I would simply say that it takes 'two to tango'!