Interview: Marco Schneebalg on reforming the Economics curriculum

Nathaniel Darling 30 January 2014

Tucked away in the back of the Cambridge Economics Faculty, for one hour on a Wednesday afternoon, revolution is in the air. The Cambridge Society for Economic Pluralism has launched a focus group, with the aim of reforming the Economics Curriculum. I spoke to Marco Schneebalg, one of the architects of this project and Masters Student in Economics at Queens’ College.

Marco Schneebalg is angry. His use of language is colourful, and he frequently stops himself and apologises for becoming too worked up.  He is angry because the Cambridge Economics curriculum, in his view, is getting things wrong. He is talking to me on behalf of a movement of people, made up of undergraduates, Masters students, PhD students, faculty members, and academics from related disciplines, all of whom are pushing for this reform.

I begin by asking him what precisely is wrong with the Economics curriculum.

The first problem, he tells me, is the lack of reality.  “You can go through the Economics degree without being able to talk about austerity, and what you think about it.” He adds, “Financial crises are never mentioned.”

The second criticism, according to these reformers, is that only one model is taught. “There’s a very full body of Marxist Economics, Austrian Economics, Feminist Economics, Ecological Economics – there’s lots of interesting stuff that we never even hear about.” Further, he says, “The one school that is taught, the neoclassical school, is simply presented as it is now… the history of economic thought is completely neglected”.

 The third aspect of this diagnosis is the lack of philosophy. “We don’t analyse the underpinnings of the theories they teach us.” As Economics is currently taught, he explains, people are always understood as individuals, and never as groups of agents who influence each other, whilst central axioms of utility maximisation and perfect rationality are unquestioned.

“I was recently in a lecture on fiscal policy, which is perhaps the most political issue in Economics. We were presented with four different economists’ models. All four were advisers to the Republican party.” He explains that these economists were the first to do the simple models, but that since then people have developed models with more complex and realistic assumptions. “But when do we get to see these models? In the undergraduate course, you think, ‘Maybe we’ll be taught it in the Masters.’ But it’s not shown to you in the Masters – do you have to do a PhD? I don’t know.”

I ask him how a group of academic economists can get the teaching of their subject so wrong. Firstly, he is keen to emphasise that he is not criticising the quality of the teaching, but merely the content of the course.  And he doesn’t pretend to have complete answers, but offers a partial explanation: “It’s a vicious circle. Researchers get money according to where they publish, and if you publish in the best journals then you have to do this one [neoclassical] theory. You hire people who do this, so you don’t have people who do anything else.” He adds that as a result, academics of other schools of thought go to less research-intensive universities.

So who is in support of this movement? “Ha-Joon Chang [Reader in the Political Economy of Development at Cambridge] is really supportive”, he says,  “And both the Bank of England and the Treasury have been complaining about the Economics graduates they receive – they say the course isn’t fit for purpose.” Students elsewhere are involved in similar movements –the Manchester University group received a lot of national press coverage regarding their parallel movement.

“We’ve been inspired by what is happening in Manchester, where through a petition they have introduced alternative lectures,” he tells me. “We have just launched an alternative lecture series, called Paper 0. Alongside that, we are launching a big survey of Economics students to understand if what we are talking about is relevant to them.” He emphasizes that anyone who is interested in getting involved should contact him.

There is one last question I want to ask him: why does he care? The answer is twofold: on a personal level, he doesn’t find the course thought provoking. But for Marco, this is bigger than himself. “A lot of Economics graduates will go on to direct the economy. It would be better for society if these people had been exposed to different theories, to more debates, to more reality, and to the underpinnings of what they’re learning.”

As an undergraduate economist myself, I could give counterexamples to his points. However, I have to admit that I am left feeling broadly persuaded by the gist of the criticisms. Whether other economists will feel the same way, I don’t know. I for one will be very interested to see the results of the survey.