Research-based education – as opposed to just research-led or research-informed teaching – is an exciting initiative that UCL has recently committed to. For a large programme like Economics (our undergraduate intake each year is about 300 strong), this feels like a great opportunity but also a major challenge.
Research without guidance is difficult for anyone let alone 18-21 year olds, but how to provide individualized guidance to the nearly 900 students we have across the three years of the programme? Much of our work at CTaLE has involved finding feasible ways to answer this question, including this piece on our first year research project. There’s no easy way around it, and we spend a lot of time wishing we could do more. But the last week has been one of those where the benefits of research-based education have declared themselves in no uncertain terms and left us feeling totally inspired and ready for more.
Early in the week, last year’s Explore Econ winner, Victoria Monro, participated in the Posters in Parliament event, which showcases undergraduate research from around the country. Victoria’s poster was on the policy implications of women entrepreneurs’ lack of access to credit, a topic that she had developed an interest in and pursued with a minimum of faculty input. It was amazing to see one of our own (Victoria graduated with a joint degree in philosophy and economics last year) talking confidently about her research to MPs and academics in the great halls of Westminster, and this was the perfect backdrop to start off the process for this year’s Explore Econ.
The proposals for this year’s Explore Econ were evaluated over the last week, about 6 weeks out from the big day on March 16th. We were completely overwhelmed by the response to the call for papers. There were nearly 30 submissions (an increase of about 50% from last year), including many from second year students, and the topics ranged from flat taxes to performance pay for teachers and from the possibility of a fiscal union in the Eurozone to the effect of house prices on fertility. We are finalizing our choice of presentations and posters, but given the quality of the proposals, we’ve had to reject many good ones. Most of this year’s submissions, as with last year’s, are based on non-curricular research that students have been inspired to do in their own time.
Last but not least, a trio of students from UCL’s new Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) won the inaugural IEA Economics Debate, going up against teams from Oxford and the LSE. These students take their introductory economics module with us, and as such, I was able to witness the amount of research these first year students put into their debate prep (the motions were on intergenerational inequality and the economics of modern India). As the winning team, our students got the opportunity to intern at the IEA, but I can’t help thinking that they will not look at another curricular assignment the same way again. If this is the way today’s young people tackle an unfamiliar subject, we’re in for a treat, and I for one feel inspired to put in the hours to make a research-based education possible.