“If you had a similar disaster like the 2008 financial crisis in any other subject, people who used to be the mainstream of the subject would all have been purged", says Ha-Joon ChangNew America

“I don’t care who writes a nation’s laws, or crafts its advanced treatises, if I can write its economics textbooks” – Paul Samuelson

You wouldn’t take the Austin Robinson Building for a battlefield. Home to Cambridge’s storied Faculty of Economics, it’s a rather charmless building humbly situated amongst the University’s social science faculties. Yet it’s the site of a ten-year revolt by students and faculty members who believe it is dominated by an out-of-touch intellectual monoculture, intolerant of innovative ideas.

“If you had a similar disaster like the 2008 financial crisis in any other subject, people who used to be the mainstream of the subject would all have been purged,” Ha-Joon Chang tells me emphatically. Chang is the doyen of heterodox economics, and is the faculty member perhaps most closely associated with the Cambridge Society for Economic Pluralism. One of a swathe of societies set up in UK universities after the crash, CSEP has been at the forefront of a movement for curriculum change. In June 2014, it surveyed over 250 Cambridge Economics alumni, MPhils, and undergraduates, gaining empirical evidence to present to the faculty. What they found was widespread hunger for change. 60% of students felt that they had gained zero or negative improvement in verbal communication, between a third and a half of students demonstrated interest in new optional modules (including Alternative Schools of Thought, History and Philosophy of Economics, Experiment Based Approaches to Economics, and Theories of Economics and Financial Crises). One respondent said that “any reasonable social scientist needs to be [literate] in at least the basic tools of not only economics, but also sociology, anthropology, and psychology”. Their criticisms found support outside of Cambridge, too. In a survey carried out by the Economics Network, employers told researchers that “some use tools unquestioningly, without understanding what assumptions underlie certain approaches”, and that they need to be able to “relate economics to the real world and why it matters”.

The world was changing and students were at the forefront. From the flames of the Great Recession, a sense of purpose had emerged. Students joined forces with academics to create the nationwide movement Rethinking Economics, thousand-page books condemning greed became bestsellers, and heads of university societies received flattering profiles in the pages of The Financial Times and The Economist. Yet after ten years, what progress has been made in reforming the discipline? When I ask Ha-Joon Chang, he scoffs, “not a lot”. He concedes that Cambridge has changed more than most, introducing three new optional papers, including History and Philosophy of Economic Thought, which he organises. But beyond this, the basic substance of the curriculum remains much the same, and the source of this failure seems to come from the fact that CSEP and the faculty mainstream have completely different ideas about how economics should operate as a discipline.

Pontus Rendahl, new director of teaching in the faculty, is exemplary of the economics mainstream, a term he is loath to use. “When you say mainstream it just means scrutinised,” he tells me. The Economics academy was once home to a diverse network of schools of thought, with Keynes towering over Cambridge and the libertarian Hayek at LSE. But Rendahl dismisses this as fundamentally dated, arguing that economics is now a positive science like any other, and that there is simply ‘good’ and ‘bad’ economic work. On the basis of this worldview, Rendahl and his predecessor, Alexey Onatskiy, have focused their efforts on student experience much more than content – which changes as the mainstream textbooks do. The story he tells about curriculum reform starts not in 2008, but 2014, when a Teaching and Learning Review by the University demanded reform in order to address lagging student satisfaction rates. The changes made were subtle, relying less on temporary lecturers and reducing the number of lecturers on each module, and streamlining courses which had become overweight with lecturers adding material and not removing anything. They did not however, make changes to address CSEP’s 2014 report, and meetings with the society yielded no results. “We have to keep a programme that keeps some intellectual integrity… we cannot be held hostage by what students want,” he tells me, saying that the prior demands to include Marxist, feminist and ecological economics as compulsory would “put Cambridge off the fringe”. Rendahl sees the entire notion of pluralism as unscientific, arguing that a discipline where different parallel schools of thought operate politicises the science, opening it up to special interests. He points out that so-called neoclassical economics is by no means incapable of revolutionary change and that a lot of what used to be heterodox is now orthodox. I suggest that this is exactly why space for pluralism is needed but he disagrees, arguing that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and paradigm shifts must pass high barriers.

When I put this argument to Ha-Joon Chang he seems irritated. “Yeah but who sets the barriers?” he retorted. “My main problem with the mainstream school is that they think there is only one type of economic theory.” It’s Chang’s belief that economics is dominated by a small cartel of journals and universities (mostly American) which set the agenda for everyone else. This monoculture privileges econometrics and empirical evidence over single-country historical studies and comparative analysis. While this approach might work in physics, Chang believes that economics is completely different. “People have imagination and free will and ethical values,” he says, contrasting this with the relative predictability of subatomic particles.

I ask Chang what he’d do if he had a magic wand to change the Faculty, and he tells me that three changes need to be made. His answers reflect his ‘let a hundred flowers bloom’ attitude but also indicate a political bent that goes beyond even-handed pluralism. First, the department needs to “hire more diverse people”, with an emphasis on hiring post-Keynesians and old institutional economists. Secondly, the course needs to be more related to the real world. This is something that Chang is actively working on at the moment with Rethinking Economics’s ‘Curriculum Project’, which will include a lecture series by Chang titled ‘Unsettled Issues In Economics’. He tells me that he has already recorded six lectures, on topics including climate change, globalisation’s discontents, and the rise of robots. Lastly, Chang thinks that less focus should be put on econometrics content, which he calls only “one very useful tool”.

Chang is hardly optimistic about this wish list, every other sentence hinting at the total dominance neoclassical economists hold on powerful positions. Many cite the Research Excellence Framework, which forms the basis of public university funding based on journal rankings that are alleged to be biased in favour of orthodoxy, as the source of the problem. But for Chang the rot goes deeper. “You need some research assessment; what is wrong is the nature of the professional community rather than REF itself.” For him the discipline needs an attitude change: “The whole point of having universities is to create an environment in which different people can experiment with different ideas.”

Rendahl is naturally keen to express that this is already the case. He points out that Thomas Piketty – the rockstar economist famed for railing against inequality – is considered to be in the mainstream and publishes in supposedly neoclassical journals. While he admits that the faculty receives more funds if it publishes work of high quality according to the REF’s measures, he says that the faculty agrees with REF regarding what are considered good journals. This is not to say Rendahl is a reactionary. While he tells me there are no major plans for further curriculum reform, in a personal capacity there are “things I want to do”. These include a standardisation in the format of compulsory papers to make exams more predictable, and to broaden the compulsory first year history module. Currently just a British economic history module, Rendahl believes it is important for Cambridge economists to be aware of the global economic aspects of the industrial revolution and the great depression.

When I speak to CSEP, there is little of the sense of militancy that Rendahl had described. They are positive about what society’s goals, but while they talk the talk on pluralism, their attitude towards reform seems much closer to Rendahlian tinkering than Chang’s bonfire of the neoclassicals. Perhaps this is simply an acknowledgement that they are not a majority. Timothy Tan, CSEP’s curriculum reform officer, noted: “I get why a lot of students might object to it [pluralism] because there is a large volume of work we have to face, and adding things above that would be quite difficult to manage, but I think it really depends on just how we implement the changes.” Indeed, while their survey in 2014 showed desire for change, it painted a picture of a student body divided over what that change should be, with some demanding greater access to social sciences and alternative perspectives, and other bemoaning the fact that they had to read history in first year and demanding more empirics.


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CSEP has carved itself a niche hosting diverse guest lecturers and making economics accessible to students outside the Tripos, but its radical goals of curriculum reform have been reduced to pluralism as a side-order. They don’t have any concrete proposals as they feel that “the faculty might not see us as representative of the whole student body”. Instead, the society is working on a follow-up survey in 2018, hoping that empirical evidence of student perspectives might trigger another wave of reform. When they do venture to suggest some changes, it is with some modesty. Tim suggests a change of style rather than a structural change: “If you’re teaching the neoclassical models, why not mention, just as a caveat, why this model might not work, and what do certain other schools have to say about it”. He also remembers positively a suggestion Rendahl had made after a supervision that more computer skills could be worked into the Tripos. Anna Valyogos, the society’s president, noted that marking schemes are very straight-forward true-false “which doesn’t really give space to students to think critically”.

It’s conceivable that these concrete, palatable, non-divisive proposals will be well-received by the faculty, but one wonders if it might push the heterodox movement back into the cold. Indeed, Chang himself seems to see his venture as Sisyphean, condemned to be a harmless thorn in the Faculty’s side. I ask him if he can see something like his Rethinking Economics course being picked up by the University. “In my dreams” he says. “People have criticised the Vatican for the last 2,000 years and it’s still there. But I live in hope, otherwise I would have committed suicide”

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