Canadian Graduate Student Unions Take Inspiration in The Impactful Advocacy of Economics Students

The Econocracy

If Canadian grad student unions ever embrace their role to lobby for better grad ed, they can take inspiration from the student movement which changed economics education, the discipline of economics and  maybe even world politics.

Canadian graduate student unions  (and undergrad student unions) can lobby for pluralism in economics education.  Three economics students from Manchester, UK set a model for the kind of analysis sorely missing in academic advocacy for graduate programs.

In their book, The Econocracy, the students review economics education in the Russel group of British universities to point out critical failures in undergraduate economics education.  Instead of learning to critique models of ‘the economy’ students learn economics orthodoxies, in a kind of indoctrination toward a ‘priesthood’.  The priest-like function of university trained economists using airless models of mathematical purity lacks both a heart and a connection to the real world.  Economics orthodoxies failed to predict, explain or care about the ravages of the global economic collapse in 2008.  The writers understand better than their Manchester professors:

The purpose of studying economics is not to acquire a set of ready-made answers to economic questions, but to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists” attributed to Joan Robinson who taught economics to future Nobel laureates [page 157].

The movement to change economics education arose from a narrowing of the discipline in the 1970s.  Pluralism in economics calls for more critique of economics models, more connection to lay persons left out of the jargon and decisions of economists and more context in economics education in terms of history, ethics and psychology.

Although the UK suffered economic devastation from the global 2008 financial crisis, the writers of The Econocracy noticed their economics courses failed to explain or care about suffering the 2008 crisis brought on.  As students driven to understand via critique & connection & context, they went about learning the stuff not taught in their official economics courses, reviewing economics education and its failure to bridge a gap to the real world.

The fusion of the word economics with bureaucracy into the word econocracy sums up the power given to university trained economists in political decisions and governments.  Some economics students in the Manchester group studied economics to get an inside track on power at the highest level of decision-making.  The Manchester students noticed their ‘outsider’ status and rejected the closed off, elite, shut out nature of economics training offered to them.

Discontent with the quality of economics courses led to a lobby for better content and spun out to touch many influential economists, economics educators and other student groups.  Economics students internationally soon coalesced into the International Student Initiative for Pluralist Economics.   The many German chapters of The International Student Initiative for Pluralist Economics are an influential force in economics within the country.  The Rethinking Economics organization also knits together many cells of student activism globally.

Students of economics helped to redefine the discipline so it better fits to reality and got luminaries like the chief economist of the Bank of England, a Nobel laureate in economics and Noam Chomsky onside.  Ignorance of an economics connected to real world threatens us all in decisions taken by politicians on the advice of a priestly caste of economists.  Pluralistic economics education makes for sounder, more inclusive political decisions.

The student movement stirred up economics education.  To broaden economics training and thinking, many university economics departments now offer a broader range of courses to provide a pluralistic perspective.  Accompanying the pluralism in economics movement, of course, is pushback against pluralism.  Graduate students in economics can pivot the discipline toward greater pluralism.

One problem with getting economics professors to offer greater pluralism is they can’t.  Training in the mono-culture of the existing discipline prevents pluralism from coming forth in teaching and breeds more mono-culture.   Embracing pluralism begins in graduate school, with new practitioners of economics who will broaden the scope of economics education.  Graduate students in economics can embrace pluralism with new pluralistic research and in teaching undergrads to critique, through context and connection.

Academic officers of Canadian graduate student unions please take inspiration in the activism of students of economics to question, influence and change academic programs.   Note one graduate student website, The Minskys from which new thinking about economics and economics education may take hold.  Canada has yet to catch fire with groups networked to reform of economics education.  Graduate Student Unions can network, introduce and aid students of economic to get in touch with international groups, projects, and new curricula.  This would be a good start on grad ed advocacy.

Graduate student unions in Canada have yet to respond to economics students critiquing economics education and get behind pluralism as a solution.   Advocacy from a graduate student union to embrace pluralism offers a proactive, positive solution to members who trust the union to look out for their economics education.  Academic officers in graduate student unions can take inspiration from the power of disparate groups of international students to come together and make change in their discipline.

Canadian graduate student unions must finally take on advocacy for better graduate education.  For example, the throw ’em in the deep end approach to graduate education which fails so many students somehow never makes it on the radar of Canadian graduate student unions.  With inspiration from the pluralism in economics education movement, academic actors for grad unions can expect success with their graduate education lobby too.

The Manchester students took an activist stance toward their economics education.  Instead of dropping out, they moved to the place of a curious, competent and critical student.  They had enough confidence and solidarity in each other to challenge orthodoxy in their education.  Canadian grad student leaders can certainly do the same and take heart in their success.

What if Canadian Grad Student Union Leaders Asked How Grad Schools Could Better Evaluate Their Programs

What would change if Canadian grad student leaders asked, “How do you evaluate, update, improve, study, learn, contribute to knowledge and stay current in grad ed?”  Perhaps deans and program heads are just waiting to say, “We never thought you’d ask.  Now that you’ve asked, let’s fill this void…”

Grad students have very little information on how their university learns about its grad ed programs.  How do grad programs make their programs better?  , how do universities determine their research training programs fit the world of 21st century research?  What process does the university use for program renewal?

The University of Toronto advertises the Canadian Graduate and Professional Student Satisfaction Survey by way of its performance evaluation.  Really?  Why isn’t the UTGSU graduate student leaders in other Canadian universities demanding better?  The info gleaned in the CGPSS is too vague and aggregated to bring about renewal for one.  For two, the survey aims more for reassuring information like comparisons.   For three, the survey fails to address renewal of graduate education.  How reassured do students feel about program evaluation if their program website hasn’t been updated for a decade?

The widespread use of CGPSS by Canadian and American grad schools just continues the well worn path of ignoring program evaluation for the purpose of change, learning and growth.  After all prominent grad ed scholars like professor emeritus Dr. Debra Stewart still sound a wake up call to action for practitioners of grad ed to learn about it.  One still overwhelming theme in the lit on grad ed is the utter indifference to the practices of grad ed by its practitioners.

Along with the poor excuse for program evaluation coming through the CGPSS, Canadian grad student leaders should notice how much their administrations take up recommendations for improvement and best practices.  The Canadian Association of Graduate Studies (CAGS) made a spate of excellent recommendations in 2003, very few of which were implemented, even though every graduate school in the country belongs to CAGS.  The lack of interest in program evaluation or development in graduate schools means that even today circa 2017 if grad schools adopted CAGS recommendations from 2003, grad ed would be advanced.

What if Canadian grad student leaders asked administrations to formulate goals by way of grad ed development.  For example, every research student must also complete a three minute thesis with a poster.  Such experiences are available now as tack-ons but the heart of research training programs remains unchanged.   What if the department of grad studies required every research supervisor to participate in ongoing professional development to learn about better supervision practices or new ideas for assessment?  What if  every program had to convene a joint student and faculty committee to study and implement program renewal initiatives?  Canadian grad student leaders must demand more than a student satisfaction survey to evaluate graduate programs.

The status quo and the CPGSS serve the university’s legendary complacency towards grad ed.  Perhaps if grad student leaders demanded more, more would be done.  Grad student leaders are supposed to function as a check on the university after all.

Buried deep in the highest degree given out by Canadian universities, graduate programs entwine a pinnacle of achievement with a nadir of attention to learning how better to surmount the pinnacle.  Grad student leaders need to end the complacency and encourage ongoing, rigorous program renewal designed to make grad ed more responsive and forward looking.   Grad student leaders could form partnerships with other union leaders to ask administrators to pilot projects to push past their passivity.

Student satisfaction surveys are no way to renew grad ed and move it forward.  What if grad student leaders need to demanded better evaluation of programs and confronted complacency?  The impetus to change needs student leadership to get the ball rolling.