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What do economics students see as today’s biggest challenges?

First-year undergraduate students of economics across the world have regularly been asked what they think are the most pressing problems that economists should be addressing. Now more than ever, they point to inequality and climate change – plus this year’s newcomer: Covid-19.

The new cohort of first–year economics undergraduates is having an initial university experience unlike any other. Many students have had online classes exclusively, while others have had ‘blended’ teaching where some small classes still occur in person, but none will have sat in a lecture theatre packed with hundreds of their peers.

They are also studying economics as the Covid-19 crisis develops in real time. In this respect, they are not dissimilar to the young people who came to the subject during the 2008/09 global financial crisis – an event that led to an increase in applications for places. Yet, many were left disillusioned by the content of their degree, which they felt offered little explanation or even mention of the dramatic economic events that featured daily on the news.

The emergence of a student movement for change led to a great deal of soul searching in the discipline of economics and, consequently, to the creation of a new, freely available first-year undergraduate course – CORE.

Led by Wendy Carlin (University College London) and Sam Bowles (Santa Fe Institute), CORE, which celebrated its seventh anniversary last week, pushes critical issues such as climate change, injustice, innovation and the future of work to the foreground, and teaches economic tools as a way to address these challenges.

To ‘check the pulse’ of the issues that matter most to economics undergraduates, since 2016 the CORE team has asked first-year university economics students across the globe to answer (in a single word or short phrase) the following question: ‘What is the most pressing problem economists today should be addressing?’

The word cloud below summarises this year’s responses, collected from approximately 3,500 students in 17 universities across eight countries.

Word cloud from 2020 undergraduates

Unsurprisingly, the term Covid-19 features prominently this year. The word cloud captures all mentions, including those accompanied by terms such as ‘implications’, ‘recession’ and ‘recovery’. Indeed, the pandemic has not only interrupted this cohort’s education but also increased uncertainty about their future employment prospects.

As in previous years, inequality remains a particularly pressing issue that economics students believe should be urgently addressed and one that the current pandemic is likely to exacerbate. We have already seen that the most vulnerable in society have disproportionately suffered since the first lockdown in March.

As the word clouds from 2017 and 2019 below indicate, concerns around climate change and environmental sustainability are growing.

Word cloud, 2017 and 2019

Where environmental concerns were secondary to inequality and unemployment just a few years ago, they are now prominent in the minds of economics undergraduates. For the generation who joined the ‘strike for climate’, global warming and environmental degradation pose existential threats that they argue should be addressed without delay.

These views were echoed by school students at the ‘Generation Covid’ session at this week’s Festival of Economics, organised by Discover Economics (a campaign to increase diversity in the discipline).

As this pandemic has shown, issues such as inequality, climate change and the Covid-19 crisis are deeply intertwined and will need to be addressed through cohesive, joined-up policy. The concerns captured in these word clouds suggest that the next generation of economists are already training to take on the job.

Where can I find out more?

  • CORE: The open access economics course that collated the word clouds above
  • Perspectives on curriculum reform: A collection of reports and news articles on changes to the economics curriculum

Who are experts on this question?

Author: Ashley Lait and Giacomo Piccoli
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