South Africa joins global charge to overhaul undergraduate economics

Economics teaching needs to be more relevant and rooted in reality, not theory. Jason Winter/Shutterstock

Are universities teaching the right kind of economics? Are they equipping students with the right kind of skills?

These are some of the questions academics in the economics discipline have been grappling with for quite some time. Over the past five years the discussions and debates have shifted to action – the development of a new undergraduate curriculum designed by a global network of economists.

The new curriculum has already been implemented in several countries. The latest to go down this route is South Africa. Academics from several universities are collaborating to implement and adapt the curriculum known as CORE: Curriculum Open-Access Resources in Economics.

The new curriculum exposes students to modern economic theories. These are drawn from a range of schools of thought. The curriculum is also consciously rooted in real world examples. It features relevant historical and institutional analysis. This resonates with students. CORE also introduces students to behavioural issues and the realities of power relations and inequalities of income, wealth and opportunity from the very beginning of their undergraduate economics degrees.

It’s an approach that holds enormous value. Economics students need a strong, relevant undergraduate foundation. Many students take a year or two of economics as part of other degrees. These include accounting, actuarial science, finance, business management, politics, law and general arts and commerce degrees.

It’s important that these students get an up to date introduction to economics. This will allow them to benefit from and gain insights into contemporary economics thinking. Such lessons will be valuable in whatever careers they pursue in future.

Those who major in the subject or pursue it at postgraduate level will also benefit hugely from a revamped curriculum. A deep, nuanced understanding will provide them with the skills they need to offer useful policy advice and produce high quality research.

Curriculum reform

The CORE project was launched in 2013. It was designed as a response to weaknesses exposed in the economics profession by the global economic crisis of late 2007 to 2009. It has grown enormously since then. It has a strong digital presence: students and lecturers can register to access interactive e-books, apps, and the teaching and learning materials for free.

In 2018, CORE’s introduction to economics replaced the standard introductory micro and macro economics courses at University College London and the Toulouse School of Economics in France. It is now used as a basis for economics teaching at over 100 universities around the world. South Africa’s universities of Pretoria, Cape Town, Stellenbosch and the Witwatersrand will start implementing parts of the CORE curriculum between now and 2020.

Part of the curriculum’s appeal is that it tries to synthesise the best economic ideas into a coherent body of thought that equips students with the methods and tools to apply appropriate economic concepts in analysing and solving economic problems. This approach is distinct from traditional economic teaching, which is either ideologically narrow – drawing from one or two economic schools of thought – or is comparative, juxtaposing a variety of distinct schools of thought.

The CORE material draws on a range of schools of economic thought. At the moment, though, its text is mostly American or European. In a recent workshop at the University of the Witwatersrand that brought South African economics academics and students together, it was agreed that this would need to be addressed to improve the curriculum for a South African context.

Lecturers and students who participated in the workshop spoke about the need for an economics text which outlines South African economic history. It should also, they argued, be located in the country’s institutional milieu and must deal with local case studies.

Ideally, whether a new curriculum is based on CORE or on other models, it would combine international best practice with a strong resonance to South African lived experience.

Future work

The workshop, and ongoing discussions around it, have signposted a clear way forward for undergraduate economics curriculum reform in South Africa.

Universities should begin the process of updating and modernising their undergraduate economics curricula. To do so, they should draw on international developments in this area – such as those represented by CORE.

Secondly, at a national level, a detailed discussion is needed about how best to adapt the undergraduate economics curriculum to be most useful in addressing South Africa’s specific economic challenges.

These processes will help universities to start producing the kind of economists the country needs to help resolve South Africa’s deep-seated economic problems.