What do you study in economics? | Economic Alternatives

I study economics in college, yes, but where? While a good five French universities offer a degree in economics, the content of these courses is not the same. Some prefer mathematics, modeling and quantitative methods. Elsewhere, they are integrated while preferring to spend more time thinking about other social sciences, the history of facts and ideas, and methods. A short trip to the antipodes between Lille and Toulouse … not only geographically.

Conducted by the French Association of Political Economy (Afep), whose members work in favor of multiple ideas and methods, a study on the content of teaching in 53 public universities with economics licenses provides an opportunity to measure -gestion. the important place of mathematics in the training of young economists. Arthur Jatteau of the University of Lille is one of the authors of the study, and for him the numbers speak for themselves: “Almost a quarter of the courses correspond to quantitative methods courses, the majority being mathematics and econometrics”, he explained during a conference as part of the Printemps de l’économie. On the contrary, “History of economic thought or epistemology courses take only 3.5%” Of the 8,000 courses taught by Afep. Discipline openness to other social sciences accounts for only 5% of the credits to be earned to confirm licensure.

Similarly, according to this study, lessons related to the environment, sustainable development or ecological transition “they don’t exist”because they attract 0.56% of loans. “It’s not complicated, 22 out of 53 universities don’t offer any courses on these subjects, Sophie Jallais, co-author of the study and lecturer at Paris I, explains. In most cases, students only hear about the environment in part of a microeconomics course, where the problem is presented to them as an externality to which a grade must be attached. »

Mathematics is preferred in Toulouse

And then where is the problem? For the majority of universities, this mathematical and statistical technical niche is the result of a scientific validation process and consensus building supported by the most prestigious international journals whose publications are peer-reviewed. Excellence in this field is currently found at the highly mathematical Toulouse School of Economics (TSE) in France. Posted on 9e world ranking of research departments by rating RePec, an international rating, the school issues several economics licenses “Thoughts for Students Continuing their Efforts in Terminal Mathematics”, we can read on the site. The training is intended as an introduction “To quantitative methods of social sciences” This will give access to the very selective L3 for the best, the third year, within the school and then to the most renowned masters. The undergraduate curriculum could not be clearer about the importance of mathematical tools: 181 of the 633 teaching hours in the first year are devoted to mathematics alone. Intensification in the second year: 270 hours out of 795 of the cycle (including additional modules).

“We give an important place to formalization [l’utilisation des mathématiques et des modèles, NDLR] in our courses, Nicolas Pistolesi confirms head of L1-L2 economics programs in Toulouse. But this is not fashion, we need mathematics to understand economics. Mathematics is not a dogma, but really a tool, a method. We are interested in answering social questions, political choice questions, business issues. We use quantitative methods to answer these questions, but we don’t necessarily know it. »

Couldn’t we suggest other ways of dealing with the economy? for Nicolas Pistolesi, “The French university system has long had several schools of thought in economics, some highly formalized and others less so. The dialogue is complicated at times. But it is true that the perspective we have in Toulouse today, which uses formalization and modeling, is extremely dominant in the discipline. When you look at work done overseas or in scholarly publications, this is the type of approach we use and teach. It is a characteristic of France to have perspectives that can exist together. But we should not caricature the reality either, there are many good things on both sides. »Focusing on mathematics among Toulouse students does not present some difficulties even for the best: “I came to L3 in TSE, Pauline Caramel says. I came from the entrance exam preparation class for the Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Montpellier, I thought it would be good. But the students who took the L1 and L2 classes in Toulouse had a much higher level of mathematics than I did, so I had to work hard to get up to speed, especially in theoretical mathematics. » Is excellence in theoretical mathematics useful for becoming a good economist? Although her curriculum listed optional courses that focused less on numbers, Pauline immediately followed the quantitative approach to economics given in Toulouse: “I start with the idea that everything can be explained by science, by numbers, and indeed when we run the models it works and explains a lot. »

In Lille, it opens to other social sciences

On the other hand, some universities (less numerous) abandon the dominance of mathematics in the teaching of economics. “Not all general economy licenses are equal, you have very quantitative, very micro licenses like in Toulouse, but there are more balanced ones. There are several points of resistance such as Amiens, Reims or Lille., Arthur Jatteau explains. In fact, students at the University of Lille are not obsessed with numbers. A degree program clearly includes courses “mathematics, matrix calculus, descriptive statistics, probability and econometrics” during the three years of study, but they are grouped together in a large place “Skill and knowledge block” It’s called Tools and Methodology for Economics-Management, like an introduction to law or English. A completely heterodox approach to mainstream economics.

How are undergraduate programs in economics organized from one faculty to another? “Everything depends on the local balance of power, Arthur Jatteau explains. There are places where the heterodox are very isolated, as in Paris 1, and where they are more numerous, or where the license to manage the economy allows them to exert influence, or where the balance of power is most favorable. Lille, just to launch new combinations. But more rarely, the dynamics are not in our favor. »

The University of Lille has indeed launched a new license in 2020 called “Economic and social sciences”, which is unique in its kind, in which mathematics takes less place and other social sciences take more place, instigated by Arthur Jatteau. “To understand inequalities, to understand the business world, to understand globalization, economics alone is not enough. believes Therefore, one of the features of this license is its openness to other social sciences and their methodologies, statistics in economics, sociology and even cartography in geography. »

However, quantitative tools are not removed from teaching, but, according to Arthur Jatteau, they are put back into proper use: “Quantitative tools return to ‘object rates.’ We don’t rule out going through a little econometric regression on inequalities, globalization, why not! But our view is quantity in the service of understanding. » This new license, which received its first promotion under the sponsorship of the economist Thomas Piketty, has already found its audience among students of economics. : “Parcoursup had 2300 requests for 70 places for this license!”Agathe Voessers is from this first class of SES in Lille: “Coming from an undergraduate degree, math didn’t scare me. But I wasn’t interested in eco-management, it was really too purely economic, whereas the SES degree offered history, sociology, geography and convinced me that. There is still math, but still very little in teaching. » Are the students of this degree aware of participating in a fairly unique sector, very few in their discipline? “We were presented with the SES license as a new license that wanted to change something, it shows. We know that and that’s what we like. We really get the impression of being part of a project, an idea, another way of imagining the economy. » Still, because of the lack of credits in mathematics, students of this new degree should not be able to enter the most selective masters in economics. “But not the most interesting”Arthur Jatteau adds.

The War on Pluralism

If there are still different ways of teaching economics in the French university, the tendency is towards standardization towards a quantitative approach of the discipline. Some important voices in the academic field even weigh heavily in this direction. In January 2015, Toulouse star Jean Tirol, who was awarded the Bank of Sweden Prize for Economic Sciences in memory of Alfred Nobel, expressed his opposition to the creation of a new academic unit in the country in a letter addressed to the highest levels of the state. economics is more open to other social sciences: “It is inconceivable to me that France recognizes two communities within the same discipline. It is important to assess the quality of research based on publications. (…) Trying to avoid this judgment promotes the relativism of knowledge, the ante-chamber of obscurity. » An ultra-violent salvo led by advocates of a superior approach, setting the tone for true internal “war” on the field. This has been in play for several years and is in the process of being won over by proponents of the quantitative approach who only want to see a head, especially through the professorial appointments game. Finally, important implications for the content of teaching in economics, where the pluralism of methods and ideas is on the way out.

Find our file “Forbidden debates: how single-mindedness applied itself to economics”.

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