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Change of Course: a Journalist’s Perspective

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I first came across economics students’ campaigns to revolutionise their education in that bastion of radical thought: the newsroom of the Financial Times.

Norma Cohen, a business reporter since the 1980s who during my stint on the UK economics team was one of the most encouraging mentors one could hope for, told me a friend of her son was part of a group at the University of Manchester pushing professors to introduce a course about financial crises.

Norma mentioned this to me as I’d often complained about the irrelevance of much of the economics teaching I’d had as an undergraduate. I had loved the subject at ‘A’ level, yet found my degree course a demoralising experience.

I had thought the way we were taught in the classroom — learning some theory and then applying it to answer real world, often topical, questions — would continue into the lecture theatre. Beginning my course, I had imagined I would emerge three years later knowing the ins and outs of how the global economic machine ran. I’d also imagined that by the time I left, I’d have some idea about how to make that machine purr in a way that didn’t exploit people.

Not so.

The balance shifted from debate and analysis towards models that said little about the world as I saw it. Neither the professors nor the students questioned much of what we were taught. The teaching was very hit and miss, depending a lot on whether the PhD student responsible happened to have a flair for it. I lost interest.

So it was heartening and, at the same time, disappointing to hear from Norma about Joe Earle and the Post-Crash Economics Society.