Review: EconTEAching Session 3: Improving Employability for Economics Students, by Prof Parama Chaudhury (UCL)

The third session of the #EconTEAching chats organised by CTaLE and the Department of Economics at Warwick took place on 20th May 2020. The session live-stream can be found on the CTaLE YouTube channel.

The #EconTEAching session on employability held on 20th May featured Dr Cloda Jenkins from CTaLE and Dr Dean Garratt from Aston University, and was chaired by Dr Ramin Nassehi also from CTaLE. Both Cloda and Dean have worked extensively outside of academia and in government agencies and in the private sector and brought their experience both in this context and since then as academics to the discussion.

The main issue flagged by both speakers was that the preparation our students get while in university – heavily technical and largely geared towards an academic career – underprepares them for many of the roles that a professional economist plays elsewhere. One can think of the three main competencies as knowledge, application and communication, and to a large degree, the last two is where economics graduates fall short. It’s important to note also that application and communication skills are important within academia as well, but outside of academia, these are quite crucial. Good students trip up in interviews because they have been trained in a way that underplays application and communication, which is unfair to them.

Is there a trade-off between knowledge on the one hand and application and communication on the other hand?

One of the issues pointed out by both the speakers and members of the audience was that lecturers often think that they will need to sacrifice content in order to fit in communication skills. There is also perceived to be a snobbery around skills development especially at the top-ranked universities. To a certain extent, universities are not meant to be focusing largely on “employability”, a term that both speakers thought really undersells the competencies we are discussing here, but the important point is that these skills are important much more generally.

What are the other obstacles to providing training in these competencies within the university environment?

A key issue identified was that most academics have not gone through any training like this and are therefore ill-equipped to provide students with these skills. This makes colleagues understandable uncomfortable with providing such training within the curriculum, but this means that such training is often not built into courses. When students see this, they may interpret this choice as implying that these skills are not very important. In addition, it is difficult to teach these skills without properly embedding them within content, because as one audience member pointed out, “What is the point of being an expert in something if you can’t communicate it?!”. One way to encourage this embedding is to provide hesitant lecturers with more hands-on examples that they can relatively easily tweak for their own courses.

How does the kind of teaching we typically engage in affect the provision of training in application and communication?

One of the issues that audience members brought up is that in economics, more than in other fields, didactic teaching where students are encouraged to be passive consumers of content. Some of this is due to inertia – this is the way that lecturers were taught themselves and therefore it is natural to them to teach in this way. But this means that any effort to change this type of teaching to bring in something more consistent with teaching these professional skills is faced with resistance because it will necessarily involve additional resources. Especially in the light of the REF hanging over most colleagues, there are few incentives for lecturers to move to a more innovative way of educating their students.

How can we address the challenge of improving our students’ application and communication skills?

It’s important to start small – students will also be unused to this kind of teaching, as even in school they are often passive consumers of knowledge. Perhaps have students start communicating in pairs as a Think-Pair-Share activity which gives them more confidence to speak in larger groups. Bringing in alumni who work in different sectors to highlight the importance of these skills and how they have developed these competencies either when they were at university or since then can lend credibility. It’s also important to recognize that this is not easy or cheap – universities will need to invest the resources, otherwise there will be little systematic change. Placements while at university can also be useful, but again elite universities are less likely to have such arrangements. If anything, these skills will become more and more important, both in the light of the current uncertain job market and also to try to bridge the gap between students from different backgrounds in terms of their preparedness for the life of a professional economist. This last point goes back to our previous session on diversity in economics – providing skills that help students to enter different types of careers as economists and therefore increase the diversity of the profession.

Thanks to Cloda, Dean and Ramin for the great discussion.

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