It's hardly a secret to anyone who's worked in an economics department: some students enrol in economics because they want to study something that seems vaguely useful, but they don't have the grades, or the mathematics and language skills, to make it in business or engineering.
Economics programs typically have relatively few essay requirements, and require little by way of verbal skills. Relative to traditional arts and humanities subjects, the reading lists are short and manageable. The math gets challenging at more advanced levels, but most of undergraduate economics requires nothing more than high school level calculus. My third year course (open to non-majors) requires about grade 10 or 11 level algebra.
As a result, at most Canadian universities, economics attracts some students who are not strong academic performers (if they were, they were be in their first choice, business), and who don't have much intrinsic interest in economics. They just want a qualification that will help them to get a job.
At this time of year, while I'm marking final exams, I despair for them, yet I'm sympathetic to their plight. Is it so unreasonable for them to expect to get some useful, job related training at a university?
I'm attempting to teach the knowledge and skills that a person would need to analyze policy - to be an economic journalist, a policy analyst in government, to work at a think tank. It's job related training - but for a particular, highly specialized type of job. Why do markets fail? Do programs like the Working Income Tax Benefit increase work incentives? What are the impacts of introducing school voucher programs? How does Canada's equalization program change people's incentives to migrate between provinces, and impact economic efficiency?
Realistically, the students who are struggling to pass third year economics courses are never going to be policy analysts or economic journalists. So what am I teaching them that would help them in the job market?
I wouldn't hire someone in an office job unless they could write a memo relatively free from spelling and grammatical errors. But I don't teach spelling and grammar. Like just about everybody else in the university system, I figure that's not my job. If students want to improve their English skills, they have to pay for special English-language classes. (I could force people to improve their English by taking off marks for every single spelling or grammatical error, but this hardly seems like a way to help and nurture new Canadians and international students either).
I don't teach students anything that would help them to run a business - no accounting, nothing about hiring or firing workers, or human resource management. It's not that I think these things are unimportant - I am very glad that, back in the day, I took some courses in accounting, and would highly recommend them to anyone. But I can't teach accounting. Ironically, it is precisely those useful courses, the training type courses that would help a moderate student find a job working in a financial institution or small business, that students are being shut out of, because business schools have relatively high admission requirements and restricted enrolments.
My students want to learn about the macro economy, about what makes the economy grow, what makes businesses more profitable, what drives innovation. I teach mainstream microeconomics, which means I don't talk at all about the macroeconomy, or jobs and growth. Profits? In a competitive market, economic profits are equal to zero. Innovation? Technology is exogenous, outside the model.
Why not? Well, there is the problem of me being a micro person, but I could fake it. More seriously, there are two ways to talk about the macro implications of specific policy proposals. One is the simplistic "Increasing the size of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Fund increases savings which increases investment which grows the economy." Sure one can say these things - and it sounds great, and so convincing - but is there any evidence? Any sound theory? No. The other is the incredibly complex: "Increasing the size of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Fund would require increasing premiums, which might or might not crowd out private savings. And then there is the question of how the CPP investment fund is invested - can overseas investments, or investments in real estate, really be thought to grow the Canadian economy..." Then we're back to square one - material that just goes right over people's heads.
I called this post "The dirty secret of economics education". But, in fact, it's the dirty secret of post-secondary education more generally: we're teaching students what we want to teach. Sometimes that's what students want to learn. Sometimes it's not.