This paper addresses the teaching of economics and explores the gap between the real and the ideal in terms of both pedagogy and the incentive systems motivating staff. The authors report results of a survey of time allocation decisions by academic economists in Australian universities and provide a critique of the incentives that effectively constrain efforts to improve the quality of economics teaching. CEQ survey results consistently indicate that economics is poorly received by students in both Australia and the USA and that extant incentives incline academics to allocate marginal effort to research at the expense of teaching. Revision of the prevailing incentive structure is recommended.
As far back as 1978 the American Economic Review (Hartman) addressed the question of "What do economics majors learn?" and decided that the answer was "not much". In a similar exercise Walstad and Allgood (1999, p354) concluded that college majors appear to learn little more than a control group not studying economics. Their results showed that many college seniors who have taken an economics course still show a lack of understanding of basic economics. An analogous exercise carried out in American Ivy League institutions (Colander and Klamer, 1987) likewise concluded that graduate students were sceptical of what they had learned in their economics courses and were in no doubt that knowledge of mathematics was much more a pre-requisite to success than knowledge of the real world and its institutions. Chicago graduates 'knew' that monetary policy worked and fiscal policy didn't, for example, while graduates at Yale and MIT tended to 'know' something quite different. What students 'knew' scientifically seemed not to be independent of the sociology of the profession.
In Australia, Course Experience Questionnaire (CEQ) results continue to indicate that economics graduates are not impressed by what they were taught or by how it was taught. The national average on the Good Teaching Scale for Australian Universities teaching economics was -6 in 1993 (with a standard deviation of 40), against a national mean of +6 taken across all fields of study. In the period 1993-98 the national average for economics was consistently negative and the economics average consistently fell behind the All Fields average. Results in research intensive Group of Eight Universities were generally less flattering still, ranging from -16.4 to -4.5 over that period. While there is some evidence of rising trends, economics continues to lag the All Fields scores.
|Source: CEQ data supplied by Ms N. Milsom, UQ research section.|
On the good teaching scale, 1998 CEQ data (p55) placed economics as one of the 10 lowest disciplines. Given this evident gap between the real and the ideal, a central question is whether the root of the problem lies in matters of pedagogy or in the way in which incentive systems are presently institutionalised. While the economics literature stresses incentive, the large and influential staff development literature - apparently more successful in influencing Australian university policy and funding - tends to stress matters of pedagogy. Economists in particular will relate to Adam Smith's observation that
"The dons of Oxford, [Smith says] grossly neglect their duties of instruction. Does [Smith] preach to each don a moral reform, seeking a pledge of diligence and good sense? Smith would have considered such a remedy to be silly: a teacher is intelligently pursuing his interest, which is 'to live as much at ease as he can because his income is independent of his efforts. A system of remuneration based upon effort and achievement, not a weekly sermon, would bring about the changes Smith wishes." (Adam Smith, quoted in George Stigler, 1982).Staff developers on the other hand write that "While there is no evidence that increasing extrinsic incentives and sanctions makes staff teach better, there is distinct evidence that it may make them teach worse" (Ramsden, 1992). Prosser and Trigwell (1999) likewise attach no significance to staff incentives. One question in the Guest and Duhs survey (2000) was therefore designed to test reaction to the Ramsden claim that paying academics to teach better may crowd-out intrinsic satisfaction and paradoxically cause them to teach worse. Economics staff rejected that prospect as "quite unlikely".
Guest and Duhs (2000) extend the Singell et al study by surveying economics staff in Australian universities. They find that perceived incentive systems have an impact on time allocation in that
Attempts to improve teaching quality must confront these facts.
Only about 1 in 1000 Economic Principles students goes on to do a PhD (Salemi and Siegfried, 1999, p355) and economics courses have not necessarily been well designed for the relevant horses (Becker,1997, p1359). As staff developers stress, the approaches students take to learning are related to the approaches staff take to teaching (Prosser and Trigwell, 1999, p159). "Deep learning" is more likely to be achieved when staff stress motivation and real world applicability of theoretical tools, perhaps by working backwards from contemporary examples to find what theory is necessary to analyse the issue. Cost curves, for example, can be presented in an immediately practical way, by asking students to write a contract to privatise a jail, just as exchange rate theory can be addressed by simulated exchange market games. Herb Simon (1986, p23) goes further and objects that "the [foundations] text books are a scandal. I think to expose young impressionable minds to this scholastic exercise as though it said something about the real world , is a scandal... I don't know of any other science that purports to be talking about real world phenomena, where statements are regularly made that are blatantly contrary to fact."
Arrow (2000) adds that economists tend to make exaggerated claims of precision when offering policy advice for fear that no one will listen otherwise, and there is a need for more candour in recognising the impact of ideology in the analysis and policy prescriptions. Extending Arrow's point, Amaryta Sen objects that modern economics "eschews deep normative analysis". Whereas departmental reviews tend to want to eliminate or minimise economic philosophy offerings, Sen, Arrow and others recognise that unsettling the apparently settled can be an effective way of arousing student interest. Indeed, anecdotal evidence suggests that students are turned off by what they often perceive to be an unquestioning approach to the memorisation of orthodox theory in courses which pay insufficient attention to the role of underlying assumptions and which do too little to draw out the limitations of that theory.
Other factors may also be involved, however. Varoufakis (1998, Chapter 12) notes that the experimental economics literature suggests that economics may make people more selfish. At the least economics staff in universities may be more aware of, and responsive to, monetary incentives than academic staff in general - given that response to incentive is the core of their teaching. This possibility is supported by survey evidence (Blendon et al, 1997) which shows that public perceptions of economic issues do not coincide with those of professional economists. In terms of time allocation, the Guest and Duhs (2000) survey finds that economics staff apply some 36% of their discretionary time to teaching, or about 40%-45% of their total work time, as against 50.7% of time applied to teaching by academic staff in general (Duhs and Duhs, 1994). It may also be that the probability of allocating more time to teaching effort varies inversely with the probability of deriving salary supplements from consulting, and this could be a partial explanation of time allocation decisions. Moreover, there are additional incentive systems favouring research in some (GO8) economics departments, via an additional intra-departmental incentive in favour of "impact research" while remaining dismissive of the prospect of measuring and rewarding "impact teaching".
From the student point of view, economics graduates have entered a job market offering them full employment. In these circumstances many economics students may consider their degree courses to be merely a way station en route to the on-the-job learning which will be their real task once they know the orientation of the particular job they fall into. For them, minimum acceptable academic standards may become average standards. Particularly for them, the perception that some staff are not particularly interested in their teaching is likely to induce reciprocation in kind, as is implicit in the Prosser and Trigwell (1999) message that the way staff approach their teaching is associated with the way students approach their learning.
Moreover, "economists must consider other outcome measures that directly affect both their students' persistence [and subject selection] and their own survival as academicians" (Becker, 1997, p1370). Becker further notes (p1363) that while "specific methods better than lecturing and writing on the chalkboard for teaching economics have not been identified with traditional test score comparisons between control and experimental groups, the problem may be with the validity of the tests. Likewise, "many educators continue to overlook the effect of incentives on measured student performance" (p1365) - insofar as students do not take as seriously measurement of their performance in tests which do not count for assessment.
Universities already give rewards for teaching excellence and so believe they can invest available measures with some reliability, and private universities in the USA reflect teaching reputation in individual pay rates. Promotion procedures in Australian universities now make some effort to allow submissions on teaching success to count for greater weight, but many individual teaching quality decisions will continue to be made outside the promotion procedure context. Serious institutionalised effort to improve product quality in what is a $4billion plus industry at least requires categorisation of ongoing individual performance over a period of years into above average, average or below average quality. SET scores, peer assessment, and research on teaching are all potential elements in this process.
The export of tertiary education services is now a major industry (Duhs and Duhs, 1997) and the University of Queensland, for one, has an ambitious plan to increase fee income from $29m in 1998 to $55m in 2003, which represents an 82% increase largely via the intake of international students (UQ 1999). Such change requires higher priority for teaching activities. As the West Report notes (1998, p8) we need an improved capacity to reward outstanding performance and if higher education is to equip an outward-looking, knowledge based economy, the importance of teaching must be recognised.
There is evidence that research output is linked to salary, that teaching loads are linked to research output, that intra-departmental incentives further incline academics to allocate discretionary time away from teaching, and that the more willing measurement and reward of research implies a likely decrease in teaching quality as the "forgotten" academic output. A continuing stream of negative survey results suggest that whatever modification has been made to institutionalised incentive systems so far is not enough to elicit significantly increased teaching effort. Pedagogical improvements are no doubt possible, but the extent to which they are availed of will inevitably be moderated by the incentive structures in place. The essential conclusion of this paper is to agree with Ramsden et al (1994, p5) that "Changing the organisational environment is the single most important way in which university teaching can be improved" - while adding that the single most important organisational change which is required is the strengthening of individual incentive mechanisms to improve the rewards for teaching relative to research. More effort by economists is called for, if the gap that has hitherto existed between staff developers and economics is to be closed, to the benefit of teaching and learning.
So will it happen? Will effective steps be taken to reform incentive structures so as to give increased priority to teaching outcomes? One positive force is the increasing importance of student fees in departmental income, making departmental prosperity increasingly dependent on student satisfaction with teaching quality. Economics departments are presently amongst the most heavily dependent on fee income, yet amongst the worst CEQ performers.
The Australian university system remains subject to heavy governmental regulation however and present pressures - as evidenced in the recent Enterprise Bargaining round - focus on cost cutting rather than on teaching outcomes. Under present governmental policy universities are obliged to take some steps towards commercialising their operations while nonetheless not being at liberty to sell their outputs in a free market. Accordingly the goal of university administrations appears to be the attainment of more flexible workforces (with more short term contracts) (Chomsky, 2000), rather than more committed teachers. Willing concession to the importance of incentive structures appears to be made only in terms of group incentives or sanctions for departments, as in the prospective withholding of 5% of departmental revenue from those departments which don't "meet the criteria for teaching quality assessment". Such group incentives or sanctions in no way change individual incentives in favour of teaching, however (Becker, 1999). As noted by the 1998 Business/Higher Education Round Table, it must be recognised that all such reforms are made more difficult in Australia by the fact that "Australian Universities are generally funded at a level much lower than comparable institutions in comparable overseas countries...The Dearing Report found that British Universities (other than Oxbridge) have budgets approximately 25% higher than Australian counterparts".
Insofar as there is any serious intention of improving teaching outcomes, the real remains well removed from the ideal. Calls for improved teaching incentives and outcomes are but one call in a resource constrained system, and hard nosed commercialisation imperatives appear to be winning the battle. Our results suggest that one thing Australian economics students will learn - more quickly than either the federal government or university administrations - is that Adam Smith had a point when he concluded that teaching standards were unlikely to be significantly improved while individual staff members lacked any significant incentive to upgrade their teaching acts.
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|Contact details: Alan Duhs, University of Queensland|
Phone (07) 3365 6574 Fax (07) 3365 7299 Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Please cite as: Duhs, A. and Guest, R. (2001). Teaching tertiary economics: The real and the ideal. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 220-227. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/aset-herdsa2000/procs/duhs.html