I have recently co-written a chapter in the new Handbook of Alternative Theories of Political Economy that considers ways that political economy teaching can be expanded. Five broad strategies are discussed:
- seeking reform to get more PE units of study taught within economics departments
- trying to form new PE departments, separate from economics, as at the University of Sydney
- hybrid strategies that integrate the teaching of PE with other disciplines
- basing the teaching of PE in other social science departments
- teaching PE outside the school and university system
The following comments focus just on the fifth strategy, because this is surely the most unfamiliar to people whose own experience is with the university system. It is also a strategy for which I have direct, ongoing experience, having set up the School of Political Economy (SPE) in 2019.
The decision to go ‘off the grid’ was based on the considered personal view that it was probably easier to set up this school than to keep working away to develop more PE content in universities. Having assiduously pursued strategies 1 to 4 to little avail for 15 years, it was time to try Strategy 5. It was quite an easy choice to make, as knowing how dysfunctional the university system often is, I was confident that I could do a higher quality job for a small fraction of the price.
I set up a website for SPE that outlined what would be on offer and invited inquiries and applications. My initial concern about whether anybody would enrol quickly dissipated. Likewise, there was some uncertainty about whether a tertiary-level course would match the needs, interests and capacities of those that did enrol. Fortunately, enrolments levels have proven to be viable and the cohort of students that have been attracted to do the courses are at least as good as cohorts I have previously encountered within the university system.
In a normal semester, SPE offers both face-to-face and zoom classes, the former being held in an excellent teaching space in Melbourne. The pandemic curtailed the face-to-face classes, but they will resume in Term 4, 2022. SPE adopts a ‘flipped classroom’ model whereby students view a lecture, having undertaken set readings beforehand, and then discuss the content in tutorial groups of 12 to 19 students. The online nature of the zoom sessions has allowed the cohort to be increasingly global. In recent terms, specific tutorials have been scheduled to best suit cohorts of students based in different time zones.
Calling it a school of ‘political economy’, rather than of ‘economics’ or ‘heterodox economics’, was a decision based on both intellectual and strategic judgements. In my view, this discipline descriptor best serves to advance the area of knowledge in question, namely the study of the social provisioning process: how society does (and does not) get the goods and services it needs to flourish and sustain itself over time. The current roster of subjects is as follows:
- SPE101 An Introduction to Political Economy introduces nine schools of political economic thought. SPE adopts a pluralist approach in all its subject offerings.
- SPE102 Evolution of the World Economy is a subject in economic history that also functions as a means to introduce key concepts, theories and debates.
- SPE103 Intermediate Political Economy examines applied and policy-oriented issues like unemployment, inflation, trade policy, money and banking and economic growth.
- SPE104 Comparative Economic Systems introduces comparative economics and considers the notable diversity of capitalist and socialist systems in both theory and practice.
The School of Political Economy is best understood as one player in an emerging movement for non-university based tertiary teaching. Other examples include The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research and The Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy. As universities in many countries become increasingly expensive for students – and often more exploitative of their students and their staff – people will necessarily look to quality, accessible alternatives.
Healthy societies still need universities, of course, and they are not going away anytime soon. However, there is no reason to let universities have a monopoly of the dissemination of knowledge. Furthermore, the teaching of economics inside universities is nearly always an intellectual scandal. While this is surely a big problem, it is also an opportunity for other entities to offer something better.
As we saw at the recent Australian federal election, if long established players cannot offer something that people find credible, and if they have proved incapable of listening or adapting, they can quickly find themselves in big trouble with constituencies they have taken for granted. Whilst the strategy of working outside the university system may currently seem somewhat novel, I believe its transformative potential is, at very least, equal to any other pathway for change.
SPE101. An Introduction to Political Economy and Economics and SPE104. Intermediate Political Economy start next week. There are still some spaces available, so if you are interested feel free to get in touch and find out more. Also, if there is somebody, or some organisation that you think might be interested, feel free to let them know.
Click here for a 10 minute overview of all aspects of the School of Political Economy and its courses.