The Economics Network

Improving economics teaching and learning for over 20 years

What makes the best learning experience for you in economics?

Smruti Sriram, St. Peter's College, Oxford
Commended in the Economics Network's student essay competition 2008.

Beginning with a game: "Guess the Connection (GTC)." What is the connection between pins, street lights, Bhutan, and India's Green Revolution? Is it that easy? Apologies. But to point out the patently obvious, its common thread is Economics. Economics, the field which boasts some of the greatest thinkers and Nobel Prize winners the world has ever seen: Sen, Coase, Friedman ... However, beyond the academic glitterati, the value of Economics should be based on its reach. Its reach across disciplines and issues: be it philosophy, geography, politics, history, or mathematics; or in answering questions like "how much should a premiership footballer get paid?", "should we ban child labour?", or "how credible is the Bank of England in controlling the macroeconomy?"

The centripetal point I would like to show in this essay is that connections are important. I want to exposit three ways in which our learning experience can be enhanced through connections. First, the importance of connections between disciplines. Second, the importance of learning about economic experiences in different countries and how they compare to experiences in the UK. Of particular importance is in understanding where the relative economic strength lies on the 21st century global scene: the West or the Rest? Third, and finally, is the connection which can be made between students. These connections should be made on two fronts: with fellow students from other universities, (nationally and internationally); and between students and "others": academic luminaries, policy makers, and business leaders through different fora of discussion and debate.

First, forging connections between disciplines. The first element in our "GTC" game was: pins. Adam Smith, in his seminal analysis of the division of labour ("Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations", 1776), used an analogy of a pin factory. As seismic a change this may have been to economic analysis, Smith, in 1776 was actually a professor of Philosophy at Glasgow University. When studying and being taught Economics, it is important to forge connections between different disciplines. So in a sense, I am calling for an adoption of degrees with multiple disciplines: Economics and History, Philosophy, Politics and Economics, or Economics and Philosophy etc, allowing students to be able to use their analytical tools to address cross-subject-cutting questions.

"Not only should we be taught about UK, American or European experiences, but experiences from around the world."

Taking this point further, using our second element of "GTC": streetlights. Streetlighting is a favoured example of tutors discussing how we can efficiently provide for a public good (e.g. streetlights). This field is Welfare Economics, and addresses key questions for policy makers. Economics provides the foundation for how policy makers should address difficult questions: "how can poverty be solved?", "how should we tackle climate change?" etc. The decision making process for policy makers requires economic and moral underpinnings (philosophy), and also a pragmatic insight to real-life applications (from history and the nature of politics). In sum, Economics provides a common thread between lots of academic disciplines, and this should be acknowledged in our teaching, and choice of university subjects.

Turning to my second point, the importance of learning about country connections, let me use our third element of "GTC": Bhutan. The former King of Bhutan, believed that a measure of a country's performance should not be made according to the conventional Gross Domestic Product (GDP), but instead on how satisfied individuals in a country are, measured on a scale of "Gross National Happiness". This pioneering measure has caught the attention of many economists, and caused reactions such as Stiglitz, in January 2008, who said that the GDP was an imperfect indicator. Bhutan is a small country nestled in the Himalayan foothills. However, this example shows that a lot can be learned from other countries. The 21st century has seen a shift in the power axis of the global economies. Call it "BRIC", or "the rise of the Dragon and the Tiger", neither Europe nor American can claim economic domination. The media coverage of these issues has been explosive, with rigorous academic literature following suit. I call upon two ways in which our learning experience can be bettered. First, should be a shift in the syllabus: not only should we be taught about UK, American or European experiences, but experiences from around the world. Second, is bettering the access we get to new academic literature profiling global phenomena. Perhaps, a student version of the newspaper "Economist", with more theoretical underpinnings?

Finally, is the connection between people. The power of debate and discussion to formulate trail-blazing thinking is crucial. What better way of doing it than bringing together the most academically active: students, academic luminaries, politicians, business leaders, and NGOs? I recently hosted a forum, where the question posed was "Is business intervention the most effective solution to poverty?", and was fortunate to panel Sir Tom Hunter (billionaire partner with the Clinton Global Initiative), the CEO of fair-trade brand Green & Blacks, and Sir Stelios, CEO of EasyGroup. The discussion was student-led, and spawned debates of who were the most influential players in poverty reduction. If there was a national movement to create more high-profile debates such as this, then we as students will feel more engaged in the Economic field. The final element of "GTC" was India's Green Revolution: the 1970s project which changed the rural Indian outlook. This project was pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation. If a partnership could be formed between such foundations and universities, where students sat in on discussions, or interned, then we would be able to understand the world of Economics on a more realistic front.

In conclusion, our simple game of "Guess the Connection" has shown that connections are powerful. Economics provides a fundamental node for such connections: between disciplines, countries, and people. These three forms of connections are lynchpin in enhancing our learning experiences. Be it through studying interconnecting disciplines, studying about different global economies, or interacting with different people through foras of discussion. This could give us better powers of analysis to address difficult questions, much like "What is the connection between pins, streetlights, Bhutan and the Indian Green Revolution?"

Read more student essays from our national competition.