Studying economics in India

Practical Affairs
Last Updated 13 April 2016, 18:28 IST

Modern-day economists have to think creatively and borrow ideas from multiple disciplines to solve real-world problems. So, it’s vital that they get access to quality economics programmes, writes Rahul De

If you ask college students why they chose to study economics, their usual answers are: “It’s a practical and logical subject,” “It helps gain jobs,” ‘I want to do an MBA/finance/business degree and economics might help me,” and so on.

The fact that economics is treated as an ‘instrumental subject’ is largely because of the way it is taught. The discipline of economics studies human behaviour, societal structures and dynamics of economic change.

However, students are taught economic theories and tools and are assessed on their ability to reproduce these theories and apply them to solve problems (usually numerical). Such courses do not prepare students for the contemporary job market.

Economists, in the private, public or social development sector frequently face situations, which cannot be resolved using conventional economic tools. This is largely because real world economic problems are complicated by the context within which they are embedded and are not explainable by standard economic models.

A modern- day economist has to think creatively and borrow ideas from multiple disciplines to solve real world economic problems. Keeping this in mind, let us explore what features a good economics undergraduate programme should have:

Being relevant

The best learning occurs, when we apply our learning to the environment we live in and engage in issues that are important to us. Economic textbooks are mostly written by foreign authors and tend to use examples, which the reader is not immersed in. While studying economics, students should be encouraged to apply theories learnt in class to make sense of the world around them.

This trains students to learn to creatively adapt/modify what they learn to different situations. Some of the issues discussed in my class last semester were: ‘Why are bankrupt companies like Kingfisher and Sahara spending so much money in the IPL?’ ‘Why do civic issues like traffic, water and electricity shortage, garbage mismanagement plague Indian cities and will continue to persist?’ and so on.

Vibrant and dynamic

A teacher’s role in the 21st century is to facilitate discussion and encourage learning. They should focus on creating an active classroom, one where everyone participates and brings new ideas. Learning should occur through dialogic means: this includes class discussions, games, activities, and field work.

Games make learning an active and participative process: for example, the stock exchange game played in the Azim Premji University undergraduate programme gets students to take on the role of buyers and sellers of shares negotiating to maximise individual gain. The field work components gets students to visit different places in the city and test the theories they have learned.

A bit of everything

Economics theories borrow from many disciplines, which range from history, psychology, politics and philosophy. Moreover, many courses complement economics such as data sciences, environmental studies, caste and gender issues, policymaking etc. A student who has been exposed to multiple disciplines will be better equipped to understand economics.

Building research capacities

Economists face different situations in the real world, which cannot be solved with conventional economic tools and requires innovative solutions. Such solutions are achieved through rigorous research about the problem.

For example, an economist might face any of the following situations: marketing electronics in the rural market, working out revenue models for digital media startups or creating a budget proposal to start a programme, which tutors drop-out students from government schools. Each of these would require collection of data about the problem and analysis of the data based on economic theories.

There is no dearth of good economic programmes in India, which range from public universities like Delhi or Calcutta University, private universities ranging from Ashoka University, Shiv Nadar University, Azim Premji University and integrated masters programmes offered by University of Hyderabad and Madras School of Economics. Students should not judge these programmes based on ranking, courses offered or placement cell.

Try to contact students from the college in which you are interested, to find out what the classroom/learning experience is like. Also, it is best to find courses which have a practical component like field work, projects, dissertation writing and internships.

(The author is senior lecturer, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru)

(Published 13 April 2016, 15:52 IST)

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