I was delighted to be invited to speak at the Rethinking Economics Conference run by the fantastic Rethinking Economics, in June this year. I was asked to be part of a panel of how student diversity in the discipline of Economics can be broadened.
Universities like to emphasise how much access and outreach work they do to encourage underrepresented groups to apply to higher education. While this is vital and commendable work,it is still only a small part of the the picture.Whilst access and outreach activities are helpful, they do not address the main challenge and broader issue of systemic change.
So, what do I mean when I talk about systemic change?
- Not pigeon holing and assuming certain things about people. I like to believe there is no such thing as hard to reach groups, institutions are just not engaging in the right way. I feel that teachers and schools should receive training and development on unconscious bias. To stop assuming for e.g. all young people from a South East Asian background are good at Maths, and Economics would not be a subject that could be of interest to anyone else. This is eroding society in a serious way as it leads to reinforced stereotypes. It is also a steeper hill for people to climb when they see no visible role models. The myth is then perpetuated and the cycle continues.
- Be collaborative when working with students, parents and teachers, one size fits all access events isn’t going to turn cohort demographics around. Honest and heartfelt engagement, as well as patience will though! Many of you will have read the article this week about Zara in the US. It’s ok to put your hands up and say, I am sorry, we got it wrong, how can we make it work? This is not failure or defeat. It is humble and authentic and you can build on what you have, as oppose to pulling the draw bridge of defensiveness up.
- Changing the curriculum and ensure it is equality impact assessed. To some extent in many ways we still do have a “Victoriana” educational model. I am not familiar with all A-level syllabi, but I am sure that there is room for reform on inclusivity and language. There always is and often the academy are afraid of change. Look at new and current exciting research, evaluate the type of participants and how it could be skewing things to a white western bias. Economics is much bigger- we all know that.
- Data matters, but diversity is so much broader than race and gender. It encompasses age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, carers status, pregnancy and maternity and religion and belief. In also includes these aspects all tied together. We are not binary male, female, white, Asian etc. If there is to be a truly diverse cohort of students, recruitment needs to be smarter. Then the key bit, the learners’ experience. How would I feel if the course materials are not accessible and I have a hearing impairment? I am a mature student with caring responsibilities and one of my key lectures is at 17.00, I have to get home. What if I become pregnant whilst on the course and I miss out on the placement year. I am scared to declare I have developed a mental health condition, due to life. I won’t fit in, I am from a particular background that is seen as x. We have to go beyond grudging compliance to actively planning for diverse communities and acknowledging that this will build a better workforce and be a step towards bridging the leaky pipeline, that we all know is so apparent and doesn’t shift as much as it should do over a ten year period.
- Confront stereotypes and ask ourselves why we have the perceptions we do. What are we going to do, to be advocates for change.
Finally, I also saw the wonderful Ha-Joon Chang speak at the Wilderness Festival on this topic. His talk focused on global misconceptions we are told. I recommend his book Economics: The User’s Guide. We all need to Rethink Economics.