The great British economist John Maynard Keynes said he longed for the day when economics could be thought of as a “matter for specialists - like dentistry”.
It’s easier to become an economist than a dentist, or a doctor or a lawyer. For those and other professions you need to be accredited - you need a licence to practice.
The economics profession requires nothing other than a university degree, and this month in its regular poll of 54 leading economists, the Economic Society of Australia asked whether it should set the bar higher.
The first question asked whether:
…professional accreditation for the economics profession would attract more people to economics as a career.
Certainly, fewer people are being attracted.
Last year, in a speech titled What Happened to the Study of Economics?, Reserve Bank official Jacqui Dwyer lamented the dramatic drop in NSW Year 12 economics enrolments, from about 20,000 in the early 1990s to about 5,000 today – many of them displaced by business studies enrolments.
An image problem or an identity problem?
It is a similarly grim picture at universities. Economics is being displaced by business-oriented subjects and has a declining share of the student population. From 2001 to 2016, enrolments in economics have flatlined (declining by less than 1%) while total university enrolments have climbed more than 3%.
Also worrying is the widening gender gap. In the early 1990s there were roughly even shares of male and female economics students in high schools. Now there are roughly twice as many men as women – a wider gap than science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and a much wider gap than in business studies.
Students from low socio-economic backgrounds are abandoning economics in droves. In the early 1990s about 25% of high school economics students were from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Today it is nearer 12%.
The puzzle is that the job market for economists remains robust.
As Dwyer notes, graduate salaries are higher for students with economics degrees than for general business qualifications, and employment rates are about the same. Dwyer concludes that “economics has an image problem: too few students understand what economics is and how it is relevant to them”.
But it might also have an identity problem.
Economics graduates are less likely than some other types of graduates to be employed in their field of specialisation (a point made by Dwyer). Their skills are generally useful.
Of our regular panel of 54 leading economists, 19 responded to the poll.
Of these, 11 (58%) either disagreed or strongly disagreed with the proposition that accreditation would attract more people to economics as a career.
Authors: The Conversation