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Learning standards in economics – Part 1

I am working in Dili (Timor Leste) today until Friday. With various travel and official obligations I haven’t much time today. Internet connectivity is also not flash at present. So this blog might be spread out over two or even three days because the issue I plan to address will take some time to articulate. One of the projects I am pursuing in my 2-year period working at CDU (in Darwin) is the development of a new program in Economics. The proposal is to develop a broad, pluralist social science degree program aimed at encouraging students to think critically about conceptual and policy-related issues and see the economy as being serving society rather than the more narrow focus on the “business” sector. The program will emphasise history, philosophy, politics, place and space, culture, be quantitatively focused, and ensure that operational realities within the monetary system are understood clearly. So, for those who know how economics curricula has developed over the years – this proposed course will be somewhat innovative and run against the tide, which in the main has focused on narrowing down economics to be just a service program in a business course (I was about to type education but quickly substituted course instead). At this point of my work I have run into the latest craze – the development of qualifications and learning standards.

Any developer of curriculum these days in Australian universities will know that the bureaucrasy had developed a framework within which all programs must fit. The Australian government “has commissioned the development of learning standards in economics under the auspices of an Office for Learning and Teaching (OLT) Fellowship”

The Government has set up the – Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) – as “Australia’s independent national regulator of the higher education sector”. It:

… regulates and assures the quality of Australia’s large, diverse and complex higher education sector … registers and assesses the performance of higher education providers against the Higher Education Standards Framework.

TEQSA is entrusted with the monitoring performance of higher education institutions against the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) which is:

The Standards Framework comprises five domains: Provider Standards, Qualification Standards, Teaching and Learning Standards, Information Standards and Research Standards. The Provider Standards and Qualifications Standards are collectively the Threshold Standards, which all providers must meet in order to enter and remain within Australia’s higher education system.

In turn, the AQF is “developed and maintained by the Australian Qualifications Framework Council, not by TEQSA. However, TEQSA is responsible for interpreting and implementing the AQF and is often asked questions about it”.

In case your getting a sense of a system drowning in bureaucratic alphabet – trust your senses.

One of the features of the neo-liberal period is the reduction in funding (either in proportional or absolute terms) to public institutions such public schools and education and policy changes that allegedly make these sectors “more competitive” yet at the same time, under the guise of regulation, choking the same institutions with a complex web of reporting and accountability mechanisms.

The “more competitive” elements usually mean that the playing field is tilted towards private providers – such as the huge public handouts to private schools in Australia – despite them having per student resources that are multiples of the poorer public schools which struggle for funding.

Yet the regulative impositions add layers of what I would call meaningless work tasks that satisfy some bureaucracy or another and have the general effect of homogenisation and the stifling of creativity. The only thing in their favour is that there is usually a phalanx of officials employed to work within the reporting frameworks – counting this or that; writing this report or another one, usually an update or whatever of a previous reprot; ticking a box here or there – categorisation – obsessive categorisation, and the rest of it.

I like direct public sector job creation so I should be happy with this phalanx – the bigger the squad the better, surely. Well, when I advocate employment guarantees, I also am careful not to simultaneously advocate “make work” schemes. I think there are almost an infinity of jobs that the public sector can create, which will be productive – in the sense that they add to the well-being of society and provide stable incomes for the job recipient and their families.

But ticking boxes as to whether some qualification fits some box within some framework doesn’t fit that description from my view of the world.

A lot of this reporting and regulation fits the category of being a waste of time – pretty harmless – boring and non-consequential. But some of it has more (sinister) implications than just being a meagre waste of creative time.

That is how I consider the development of learning standards. Don’t get me wrong – I hate shonks – such as the ratings agencies and private education providers that have sprung up like topsy to become pawns in the government’s competitive game.

I hate scam merchants that thought they could make a buck by setting up a “university” by renting some shop front or another, erecting a set of shelves and attaching a sign – “library” – to it and building a WWW site to announce it was joining the high quality providers of higher education in Australia.

I think regulating those sort of charlatans is a useful exercise, although it is questionable whether the standards framework that has been erected actually does weed out that sort of behaviour. I could cite examples – many of them – but I won’t – here.

The overwhelming trend has been towards “competitive” markets in educational provision in Australia.

Britain went down this path too – a little earlier than us. My favourite new institution is – UBS.

UBS is a great modern higher education provider – which is built on the modern principle that “nobody should be exempt from a university education” and maintains an “admissions policy which ensures that no-one will be rejected on any grounds except non-payment of fees”.

It is “proud to be one of the very few universities which does not require proficiency in English as a pre-requisite to enrol” (being situated, of-course, in an English-speaking country) and it always looks “forward to receiving your tuition fees”.

How many universities can claim to have a Vice-Chancellor named Alan Dubious and a Senior Academic Officer named Dr Mike Shagger, and a Director of IT Services named Dick Dongle, who was recently “awarded a certificate of attendence for the “Introduction to Microsoft Windows” course”.

Creating and enforcing a regulative and qualifications framework which ensures institutions such as UBS prosper is to be admired.

But take the process that has emerged under the guise of commissioning “the development of learning standards”. This is one of the main functions of TEQSA.

TEQSA define learning standards as:

… the explicit levels of attainment required of and achieved by students and graduates, individually and collectively, in defined areas of knowledge and skills …

There is now a process underway in Australia, which is largely replicating the same process that has been completed in the UK over the last decade, whereby individual disciplines are now setting up committees to develop “learning standards”.

In Australia, this work is being done by – the so-called Australian Business Deans Council and the Economics Society of Australia.

The ABDC has created a – Economics Leaning Standards homePage. Note the registration as a .com domain – which strictly was intended to be used by for-profit business entities.

But then – education in this brave new world of competition and funding cuts – is all about for-profit and business – and, one might ask, with some hesitation – is it still about education?

The ABDC say that “so far learning standards have been developed collaboratively under various auspices for a number of disciplines, including Accounting, Marketing, Law, Engineering, Geography, History and Chemistry to name a few”. Note the mixing of what we might call true disciplines with derivative “disciplines”.

One of the hallmarks of the growth of so-called “business schools” has been the mis-use of the term discipline. Everything becomes a “discipline” because that sounds like it is an original foundation knowledge base.

But a moment’s reflection will tell you that “marketing” is not a true discipline. It is a branch of applied economics. “Human Resource Management” and “International Business” are not disciplines in the true sense of that concept. But in the modern business school these become central “disciplines” such is the state of where things have gone.

Anyway, that minor issue aside, the ABDC – a collection of senior managers in “business schools” – have become central players in the development of learning standards in economics.

They note that:

Economics learning standards have been developed in the UK (called Benchmark Statement for Economics) under the auspices of the Quality Assurance Agency (a body similar to our TEQSA) … In Europe, the Tuning-AHELO … project has developed a statement of desired learning outcomes in economics …

So like lemmings on the charge, Australia is setting out to “develop the learning standards for Australian economics degrees at Bachelor and Masters level” via the so-called “Economics Learning Standards Working Party” who are allegedly consulting “extensively with the academic and practitioner community of economists” and there is also a “Economics Expert Advisory Group” that will give it “high level advice”.

What differentiates high level from low level is beyond me.

Anyway, why should we be concerned about this process – if at all?


Tomorrow, I will expand on what the actual process of developing learning standards in economics is about as the second part of this blog.

Think homogenisation rather than heterogeneity. Then think about what the homogenised model might look like. Then start worrying.

I will also tie this into a rather insidious program that is emerging in the US which overlaps with this homogenisation.

I have run out of time. I am now off to a reception held by the President and Prime Minister of Timor Leste … I will report on all this activity in due course as well.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2013 Bill Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

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    This Post Has 8 Comments
    1. Hi Bill,

      following your blog with great interest. I will share with our Timor-Leste and CDU partners and hope we have an opportunity to meet sometime. Heading back to Dili and Baucau after planning TL and Australian industry development cooperation. Kind thanks, Kevin

    2. Seeing ” economy as being serving society rather than the more narrow interests of the “business sector”” Is a very refreshing perspective! If Economics isn’t about serving society what is it’s worth?
      Thanks for all your efforts Bill Mitchell, I am certain this new program you are developing will do the world a great deal of good as is this blog! You have helped me to view economics (esp MMT) as a true science and, as such, a valuable tool for separating truths and knowledge from the sea of false beliefs we are all afloat in.

    3. Hi Bill
      Very interested to chat to you, when in Darwin or Dili – as I am based at CDU, and working with UNTL and other partners (such as Nusa Cendana University in Kupang and the Timor Leste Maritime College), to develop a curriculum in fisheries, aquaculture and coastal management at UNTL. I think we can learn a lot from your ‘challenges’…

    4. I am really heartened to hear of Australians helping out in Timor Leste. It’s a small poor country that needs and deserves help.

      I am also pleased to hear John C refer to economics as a science. It has its uncertainties, as well as qualified truths, but so do all other sciences. It needs the rigorous treatment that other sciences get when at their best.

    5. I recall from the distant past that Economics as it was taught in the 60’s was a horrible subject, when it is in fact quite interesting and practical. Economics is simply the study of transactions and the impact on the individual, community and nation. The primary tool we have invented and reinvented and reinvented is money (universal credit) with currency being the physical manifestation of credit. Johannsen’s Wheel of Money (credit) is a useful representation of the circular nature of credit and the impacts of earned and unearned credit on the flow as well as productive investment and mal-investment on the demand driven velocity.

      As an aside, in 1908, Johannsen described the mechanism for the first credit default swap, banks backing railroad bonds for the purpose of increasing the flow of credit to railroads, stimulating job creation and ultimately the demand for goods and services to kick start the economy from a recession (low credit velocity caused by mal-investment). Johannsen was one of the few that predicted a great stagnation in the future because of investment decisions (money-getting). It was List that pointed out the economic differences between the objectives of business and nations (business would buy their weapons from their enemies, cheaply. List was not from the Austrian School).

      Speaking of Economic Schools, has the New School removed it’s set of web pages that provided an overview of Economic Schools?

    6. Tony,
      Despite the inherent difficulties reflexivity introduces, the kind of careful econometrics and analysis Bill emphasizes here on a daily basis, informs me that economists willing to state clear falsifiability criteria for the theories they propose and who don’t ad hoc to the point of absurdity when questionable data appears, are in fact, practicing a science.

    7. John, I perhaps implied something in my comment that I did not mean. When I complained on another forum recently that economists use too many words and not enough mathematics I was firmly corrected and referred to some advanced macroeconomics textbooks. I have not had time to follow up the suggestions but it does show that I am not really competent to make general statements like that. Nevertheless, I do think that a scientific approach is needed – it’s just that there is probably more of it out there than I realised.

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