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Turning the teaching of economics inside out with CORE

CORE Economics Education produces accessible, relevant, real-world economics teaching, freely available to all.

The Nuffield Foundation funded the development and production of two components of the CORE project – Economy, Society and Public Policy, an introductory economics course for non-specialists, and Doing Economics, a resource for learning an array of data-handling, software and statistical skills. To mark the end of the project, Nuffield Foundation CEO Tim Gardam introduces the question of how to deliver economics education for a public purpose.

 

Speech from Tim Gardam, Nuffield Foundation CEO, to the CORE Economics Education symposium

26 February, 2020

The Nuffield Foundation, like all funders, loves to take credit for a project that proves a great success but, truth be told – in the case of CORE, and the work of Wendy Carlin and her team, and their recently launched online courses and textbooks – Economy, Society and Public Policy and Doing Economics – it is we who should be thanking her.

This project has in many ways re-defined for us how the Foundation can support successful programmes for students in future. These programmes have been a key aspect of the Foundation’s work since it was set up in 1943.  

Nuffield was established as an independent Foundation. That principle of independence still threads through all that we do; but there is little point in being independent as a funder if you do not allow independence to those you fund, offering the avenues and freedom to frame questions in ways that they may not get elsewhere. CORE’s re-framing of the teaching of economics and the interconnecting of economics with other disciplines in the social sciences is a great example of exactly that. 

So, I am going to spend a moment, if I may, putting this project into a context that explains why it is so important to the Nuffield Foundation’s overall purpose, and why we hope to build further on this idea even as this phase reaches completion. 

The Nuffield Foundation funds social science research in the domains of Education, Welfare and Justice. When assessing applications, we always look to the proposed project’s capacity to inform and influence public policy and professional practice. But the other flank of our mission is to build educational capacity so that individuals can make good decisions as a result of the evidence research uncovers. For the Nuffield Foundation, the interconnection between research and learning is indivisible.  

If our research portfolio is our first pillar, then our second pillar is our funding of a number of student programmes, designed to shape students’ capacities, as they transition from the world of study to the world of work. Our programmes introduce them to quantitative methods and how to apply these to make the reasoned judgements necessary as an informed citizen in today’s data-driven society. The third pillar of our work supports institutions, such as the Ada Lovelace Institute, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, that synthesise research evidence, convene different perspectives, and so shape the wider public conversation.   

Together they add up to the overarching purpose of the Nuffield Foundation: to advance social well-being by scientific research and specifically to advance educational opportunity.    

CORE was not originally funded by the Nuffield Foundation. Today’s event is built on the shoulders of UCL’s first CORE project, which had the straight-talking title, The EconomyYou probably are all familiar with it – an interactive electronic textbook, that sets out to turn economics teaching inside out. It arose from the growing dissatisfaction, globally and in the UK, with the teaching of those studying economics as their main subject among teachers, employers and especially students in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. 

Wendy Carlin approached the Foundation after the success of the original CORE Economics project. She had helped rethink the teaching of economics to economics students. Her pitch was that they should now expand it to offer Economics as a quantitative social science to those who would otherwise avoid it in their syllabus.  

I have re-read the original application (an important document, as it is what got her the money). It had the most terrible acronym – CORE EquSS – E.Q.U.S.S – Teaching Economics as a Quantitative Social Science, one that must have totally confused students who will have thought it was something to do with a play by Peter Shaffer. I don’t know how many unfortunate drama students inadvertently wandered into the classes, though I am sure it did them a world of good.   

Apart from that, the application set out its case with a clear and urgent purpose: to break out of that cul-de-sac in social science teaching in universities where policy-oriented students often find themselves having to choose between a quantitative course of study – economics – that is only minimally social in content, or a socially oriented course of study that provides little training in quantitative scientific methods. This would provide social science students, and, over time, others too, with the language, skills and confidence to engage in reasoned and fact-based debate on policy issues. 

 

Wendy’s idea, whether she knew it or not, was in the mainstream of one of our founding objectives. The Nuffield Foundation for six decades has been known for its curriculum development, albeit in schools. There must be many here, myself included, who remember the Nuffield Maths and Nuffield Science courses and textbooks in the classroom and their refreshingly practical and applied approach. The project we funded stands in that tradition.

In a broad sense, it fits with the other building blocks of the Foundation’s student programmes – Nuffield Research Placements – that provide research placements for 1,000 STEM students from lower income backgrounds, at the end of their first year in sixth form, to build their quantitative and analytic skills over their summer holidays before they apply to university. 

But CORE is more directly linked to Q-Step, our £20 million programme, co-funded with the ESRC and HEFCE, to promote a step-change in quantitative social science education and training in the UK. There are currently 17 Q-Step Centres based at universities across the UK that are developing and delivering specialist undergraduate programmes. Two Q-Step Centres, UCL, and Bristol, were integral to the application. Other Q-Step Centres road tested the materials – Nottingham, Oxford, Queen’s Belfast, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Sheffield. Since then, over the past three years they have brought in other collaborators, among them universities from the United States and France.  

Though it might not be the most diplomatic way of putting it, some social scientists who are not economists might say that the CORE team has saved economics teaching from itself. It presents economics not as a theoretical academic subject but rather as an area of interest for anyone interested in their society. And its point of departure is how economics impacts the world we live in, what the policy issues are, and what policy-makers can do in that context.

But in the course construction, there is, to my mind, a wider point. In any democracy, there is an increasing need for some fluency among its citizens in both the language of economics and the quantitative analysis of social policy, just as it is essential for the quantitative mind to recognise the force of moral sentiments and normative reasoning. In a society driven by digital technologies and a super abundance of data, that fluency requires a new level and complexity of translation between different disciplines. When I dug out the full application from Wendy from 2016, it sets out this imperative.

The programme will be interdisciplinary by necessity, because, as the new paradigm makes clear, the central policy problems cannot be addressed by economics alone without reference to psychology, politics, sociology, history and law.” Wendy Carlin, 2016

To which I would dare to add philosophy. For it is the nature of digital technologies that they break down all sorts of boundaries, including subject boundaries; their challenges and opportunities require an intellectual openness and curiosity between the solutions-based hypotheses of data and other sciences, the wicked questions of social science and the cultural, linguistic and normative questions of the Humanities. In this regard, CORE, though a teaching resource, engages with one of the most difficult dilemmas of our research agenda. Every research proposal now bows to the shrine of interdisciplinarity, yet we all know that working between disciplines requires a prior rootedness in one. The manner in which the CORE team has constructed their course recognises this. It does not dilute the fundamentals of economics but offers a different pathway to them. You could almost say it goes some way to providing the hardcore for a 21st century version of the classical trivium – of Logic, Grammar and Rhetoric – trivium was of course derived from the Latin, “the place where three roads meet”. Similarly, CORE recognises the interplay of different ways of thinking necessary to equip a mind for reasoning its way through the problems of the times it will live through.   

What next? There is something immensely satisfying in seeing the publication of a fat tome by OUP. But, critically, all the materials are online and free to use.  It therefore breaks down the barriers to learning and stands full square in the Nuffield Foundation mission of intellectual emancipation. We want this content to reach beyond the Academy to anyone interested in the issues it addresses. The strength of the CORE approach is its adaptability. For example, the empirical examples in the course identified a need for data handling and analysis exercises which are suitable both for students with relatively basic mathematical or IT skills and for more advanced students, including those able to use quantitative analysis software. 

Now that attention, after far too long, is shifting from focusing solely on Higher Education to improving Further Education, there must be opportunities to re-scope this wealth of material across educational boundaries – for schools and lifelong learning, because what it offers is essential for a productive life, not only economically but as a citizen too. I very much hope the Nuffield Foundation can play a part in where it goes next.

About the author


Tim Gardam
Chief Executive Officer


Prior to joining the Nuffield Foundation in September 2016, Tim was Principal of St Anne’s College at the University of Oxford, a post he held for 12 years. He is also Chairman of the Which? Council.

Tim worked for 25 years in senior broadcasting roles, starting at the BBC where he was editor of Panorama and Newsnight, and later becoming Head of Current Affairs and Weekly News. He was Director of Television and Director of Programmes at Channel 4 from 1998 to 2003. From 2008 to 2015 Tim was a member of the Ofcom Board and was Chair of the Ofcom Content Board.

Tim was also the author of the Department for Culture Media and Sport Review of BBC Digital Radio Services in 2004, a member of Lord Burns’ Advisory Panel on the BBC Charter Review and a Director of SMG plc from 2005-7.

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We improve people’s lives by funding research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare and Justice. We also fund student programmes that give young people skills and confidence in science and research.

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