Rethinking economics for Africa is a duty

(John McCann/M&G)

(John McCann/M&G)

COMMENT

After the excitement of graduation wears off, many undergraduate economics students become worried. A friend, who got straight As in her final year, once said she didn’t think she knew “how economics works in the real world”.

If you understand the limitations of what we are taught throughout our degree, and the way in which it has been taught, you will realise that economics graduates often enter the working world with little confidence in the knowledge or skills they have acquired. We are stumped when asked crucial questions about the economy that we live in.

What is the solution to South Africa’s unemployment crisis? Will a national minimum wage really cause unemployment in South Africa? What is the informal economy and how does it work? What caused the financial crisis and how do we avoid another one? What is South Africa’s economic history? How can we look at economic problems using Institutionalist, Austrian, Keynesian, Post-Keynesian, Feminist or Complexity Economic schools of thought?

These are crucial questions but they are not answered in most South African undergraduate economics degrees.
We are taught economics through the single neoclassical lens. We are taught models whose assumptions are not questioned.

Little critical thinking is applied in our economics degree, which limits our ability to solve problems and develop qualitative skills. Some have argued that, to teach one approach, and to teach it without critically addressing its assumptions and implications, is to teach economics that is propaganda.

Pluralism, the teaching of different approaches and schools of thought, is vital to a well-rounded education. The introduction of different approaches would offer economics graduates a greater range of tools, which they could use to tackle problems in the working world.

Rethinking Economics for Africa (Refa) is a student-based organisation that believes our economics education needs to be decolonised. At the University of the Witwatersrand, and in many other undergraduate economics degrees, we are not exposed to even one reading or chapter by an African economist. Neither are we taught about the economic history of our country or the continent. We are often taught models that do not apply to the reality in South Africa.

For example, we are taught that the economy is made up of “rational agents”. A rational agent is a model person with clear preferences, who deals with uncertainty by using expectations, and always makes choices that maximises their personal gain. The way this concept is explained is in the classic liberal conception that individuals are self-serving, maximising their own utility.

There is no discussion about the role of the values, culture, history

or psychology that shapes the decisions of individuals. Does this rational agent live in places where the group comes before the individual and where the principle of ubuntu, that you are through others, is valued? Without context, the teaching and production of knowledge is not rooted in the conditions we face, and there is a real risk of developing professional expertise that is inappropriate and potentially damaging.

Our infatuation with Western universities also needs to end if we are to decolonise economics. In second year, I asked my course co-ordinator why we learn about a labour market model that does not apply in South Africa. Recent research on the national minimum wage has shown that it will not cause widespread unemployment, as our textbooks have taught us. A national minimum wage will alleviate poverty, reduce inequality and in some cases encourage employment.

Her first response was that she agrees with the criticism. Her second was that they have to teach these models because these are used at universities in the United Kingdom and the United States. She explained that if some students went overseas to study they would not understand their models and could struggle.

This interaction confirmed that our economics curriculum needs to be decolonised. Most students do not go overseas after they graduate. Most remain in South Africa or other African countries. But they have been taught a labour market model that does not apply to their countries simply because “the West is doing it and so should we”. Relevance and local application of the economic models and economic principles is integral to decolonising economics.

During the inaugural Rethinking Economics for Africa Festival, held at Wits in September last year, the Wits Refa hosted students from the universities of Cape Town, Western Cape, Zululand, Pretoria and KwaZulu-Natal and Rhodes University.

Through workshops and discussions, we came to realise that the problems we at Wits face are the same as those faced by students at their own institutions.

Looking beyond our borders, we have found that the neoclassical hegemony in economics departments exists throughout the world.

Things are beginning to change with the support of several academics. At Wits, a course called Applied Development Economics has just been introduced at postgraduate level. This is a progressive and exciting step, but this programme is an exception at South African universities.

Wits, like most others, still does not offer a pluralist approach in its undergraduate economics degree. Not all students go on to study postgraduate economics. Therefore, universities are obligated to reform undergraduate curriculums so that they provide a holistic body of skills and knowledge for these students.

Based on the experiences of academics who support decolonising economics and the research available, there are several challenges that stand in the way of reforming economics education. Some academics have told me that those among them who oppose curriculum reform do so because they would be forced to teach content that they were not themselves taught and may not fully understand.

Teaching economics with a pluralist approach requires more energy and greater skill. It is simply easier to continue with what you know. In South African universities, academics seem to be unable to teach both qualitative and quantitative methods to meet the necessary standards. Another challenge is to design and implement a new curriculum within the limited budgets that universities have at their disposal.

It is a university’s responsibility to offer education that equips students with the skills and knowledge that are relevant to their lives and job prospects. At the same time, students ultimately bear the greatest responsibility for what they do and do not know. When an undergraduate degree does not offer the full picture, we need to fill in the gaps.

The first way to deal with this is to organise groups to learn outside of the curriculum. We can do this by hosting guest lecturers and panel discussions and organising reading groups that go beyond the narrow scope of our curriculum.

The second thing is to demand that our curriculum is reformed by starting a formal process with the university so that we can begin to mould the kind of economists who can deal with the challenges in our economy and society.

Free education is an important step towards upskilling South Africans, offering equitable opportunities to education and offering young people a way out of the poverty that grips our country. Equally important is the quality of this tertiary education. As students, we have come to realise through our efforts in #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall that it is our duty to challenge an education if it is dogmatic or colonised.

This is a duty that students involved in Refa are taking seriously. We recognise that the economics that we are taught shapes the economists that we become, and therefore the kind of economy that we shape.

The economics we are taught has not changed for several decades and this reflects in the stagnant state of our economy. This is why we need to rethink economics.

We need to rethink what is taught, the way that economics is taught, and who teaches it. We need to consider carefully who the current capitalist-centred neoclassical economics serves.

We hope that university management and academics will begin to take their duty seriously to reform the economics curricula so that they are pluralist, critical and decolonised.

Kamal Ramburuth-Hurt is an honours student in economics at the University of the Witwatersrand and the chairperson of Rethinking Economics for Africa

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