‘Education Is the Formation of Horizons and Economic Thinking’
What are the modern trends in economic education and how are they incorporated in HSE programmes? Why do economists need machine learning and artificial intelligence? Is it necessary to attend lectures and how can students get the most out of their bachelor's programme? How radical are the changes in economic laws that have occurred in recent years? These questions and many other topics were discussed by Sergey Pekarski, Dean of Faculty of Economic Sciences (FES), and interns of the Laboratory for Economic Journalism.
‘All students are good, but they can have different needs’
— Why are there two tracks (Advanced and General) in the Economics programme at FES?
— Microeconomists have the theory of price discrimination. It states that there are buyers who create different demand, and it is possible to implement a policy of separating buyers based on differences in their demand. We proceed from the fact that all our students are good, but they can still have different needs and different motivations. Some enter the Faculty of Economic Sciences with a clear aim, for example, to become a banker. Others come to HSE bright-eyed and with a desire to study economics as much as possible, then decide what career to pursue later during their third or fourth year.
Therefore, it is quite reasonable to divide students into groups with different focuses. It is possible to discriminate on an individual principle, and it’s done partly this way. Thanks to the great variability of the curriculum, our students are able to build individual educational trajectories. However, it’s also possible to discriminate on a group principle: since the compulsory programme in Economics is broad and it’s impossible to give lectures without creating groups, shouldn’t we create tracks with a focus on selecting students with different interests and different backgrounds instead of creating groups mechanically?
— How are priority directions selected for the General programme? How are hours distributed?
— This is a creative process which includes a few components. Firstly, we try to keep the curriculum of our programmes as varied as possible. In our broadest programme, Economics, more than half of all credits are earned by taking electives. Secondly, we take the core of the programme extremely seriously despite the obvious paradox that economic theories in their pure form will not be used by graduates.
All of my colleagues and I proceed from the fact that education is more than a set of specific competencies. For us, education is the formation of horizons and economic thinking, and this is our strength
We aren’t preparing narrowly specialised professionals who have information that is applicable only here and now—we are preparing economists who are ready to respond to various challenges and continue to study after they have graduated with a bachelor's degree. Our task is not to pass on specific knowledge to students, because that can be found on the internet, but rather to prepare people for the fact that they will have to perform in completely different roles throughout their lives. To do this, students need to be broad-minded. This leads to the idea that core courses (micro, macro) should be intensive enough to form the necessary competencies.
— How do you adopt the experience of other countries in building educational programmes? Did your personal experience of getting a PhD from Erasmus University Rotterdam come in handy for you?
— Our first collaboration, which started in 1992, was with Erasmus University Rotterdam and the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. Our foreign colleagues came to HSE to teach courses. We had an agreement with Erasmus University: master’s students, after attending a certain set of courses, received a certificate from the university. We were the first in Russia to adopt this experience.
It all went so well: our colleagues taught economics according to world standards instead of teaching Soviet economics in the form of political economy or, at best, economic cybernetics. It was easy to maintain this process by upgrading professors’ skills and attracting international colleagues with PhD degrees from leading American and European universities. Our colleagues contributed to raising the standards of scientific research as well as teaching economics and finance at a level corresponding to the world's leading universities. At the end of the 2000s, it became clear that we were virtually equal in quality to leading European and American universities.
After graduating with a bachelor's degree from FES, many of our students successfully entered master's and PhD programmes at foreign universities
In the early 2000s, Western colleagues treated HSE with scepticism when they received sets of documents from our students, but later our university became a brand.
‘An economist always has an important mission’
— At FES, credits are covered by the educational programme, but at other faculties they need to be earned at the Project Fair. What is the difference and why was this approach chosen? Doesn't such a system limit the motivation to engage in versatile development by participating in side projects?
— In our opinion, the tasks solved in the course of project work, primarily the development of soft skills (setting research questions, argumentation, presentation, etc), must be linked to professional activities.
As for versatile development, this is achieved through minors. It is a fairly good system, since students choose not a single discipline, but a whole block that allows them to gain additional knowledge not in isolation, but more extensively. Also, the disciplines of the general cycle involve an interdisciplinary intersection which can be humanitarian, sociological and political.
— Many students say that they lack the opportunity to choose courses from other faculties. Do you want to develop in this direction?
— We would like to develop in this direction, but there are some organisational issues. In order for students to have more flexibility in choosing courses offered by other faculties, there need to be organisational possibilities and corresponding standards in the curricula of educational programmes at other faculties.
We understand that a student may want to choose course X at faculty Y. But if this course is taking place at a time when a core course is being taught at the student’s home faculty, this cannot be done.
Even at the level of minors or intercampus disciplines, we have had certain problems when we have had to allocate some specific time from time slots. In addition to time slots, there are also issues related to joining and the number of credits. Indeed, quite a few problems of this kind are easier to solve in the West. This is firstly because educational programmes there are not so big. HSE has gigantic faculties. We are very big. It is easier to do this when the number of students is smaller; it is simpler to technically take into account all the possibilities. Secondly, in the West there is a great standardisation of academic disciplines. For example, economics programmes at all American universities just have some digital titles, and any American student can understand what kind of course it is. In short, our diversity and eclecticism unfortunately prevent such mutual penetration.
— What are the main directions of FES development now? What should be improved at the faculty?
— No matter what field economists work in, they always have an important mission: if you have learned something about the economy, share it with society in an understandable format, popularise your knowledge, and think how it can be applied in companies, in public policy and so on. One very important element here is the great practical orientation of our educational products and fundamental research. This is what we are striving for.
Our model of project-based learning assumes that we not only work with students ourselves, but also attract employer-practitioners. This is the direction in which we need to develop
— People from other fields are sometimes sceptical about economists. They say that we are doing something obscure and pseudo-scientific for ourselves. How can economists better position themselves to get rid of such appraisals?
— Yes, there is some separation. Many people believe that economics is a field where one can make judgments without having the appropriate skills or education. Therefore, the banal mistakes that we often see in the media are due to unprofessionalism.
Economists are people with a certain way of thinking developed through study. In terms of openness, we are ready to support initiatives from students who want to study related disciplines that are beyond the field of economics. If students come to me with a desire to organise a project with students from another faculty, then I will provide the necessary support—it's interesting!
‘Online learning is just another technology for communication’
— As a field of social science, economics relies on certain methods of analysis. Modern economists must master mathematical tools. For example, econometrics is a mathematical discipline, but it originated in economics. The methods developed by economists were then used by marketers and sociologists. Instrumental methods of working with data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence are promising in economic analysis. Therefore, this programme answers a demand from economists for new methods of data analysis, and a demand from applied mathematicians to apply mathematics. I am an applied mathematician by training. As a student, I thought about how I could apply my mathematical knowledge, and eventually I became an economist.
The idea of constructing this programme was very simple to implement: it was easy for us to combine two cores (economic and mathematical) and build a curriculum, since the courses in Calculus and Linear Algebra at the faculties are very similar. We had to sacrifice a minor in this programme. Nevertheless, graduates will have two diplomas: one in economics and one in applied mathematics.
— In your opinion, does the future belong to specialists who can work at the intersection of disciplines?
— This is definitely true. Interdisciplinarity plays an important role that needs to be developed. However, successful development requires a deep basis for mutual enrichment. For example, behavioural economics is an interdisciplinary field: economics is enriched by a knowledge of psychology and vice versa. And, for example, in the case of macroeconomics at the present stage of the development of science, such interdisciplinarity is not developing. Although, as a macroeconomist, I understand that it would be logical to take hypotheses from behavioural economics. In this sense, it is important to understand where this interdisciplinarity arises in order to teach students to develop a complex approach.
— There is a successful online master's programme at FES. What about an online bachelor's programme?
— We created an online master's programme two years ago, and it has been successful from the very beginning. This academic year, we also launched an online bachelor's programme, but, unfortunately, there was no successful enrolment for this programme. We expected a full group of 30 people, but we only enrolled half of that.
— Why did that happen? Is it a matter of different degrees of self-awareness?
— Yes, to some extent. High school graduates and graduates of bachelor’s programmes are different people. Although the age difference is only four years, the gap is huge. In the case of school graduates, the decision is often made not by the students themselves, but by their parents. However, it’s a separate and not very simple task to convince parents that online education is a high-quality education. Unfortunately, for many parents, online education is associated with low-quality distance learning based on textbooks from the Soviet system.
In fact, online learning is just another technology for communicating with a teacher, but communication is retained to the same extent as in the traditional format
In a sense, online education enables even greater student involvement in the processes, including more frequent meetings than traditional education. Online education should not just be a technology for remotely broadcasting lectures and seminars. It's something more.
— Why do we need an online bachelor's programme, in your opinion?
— When we considered the online bachelor's programme, our working marketing hypothesis was that HSE's commercial education in Moscow is expensive for two reasons. First, there is the high cost of education itself, because HSE is a leading university. Secondly, there is a high cost of living in Moscow. Therefore, we thought that by offering an online bachelor's degree, we would offer a product that is cheaper yet of the same quality as regular commercial places on a traditional bachelor's programmes. In addition, the format allows you to stay in your home region.
Our task is to offer products that can reach the widest possible audience. This includes students in regions where the level of economic education is average, to put it mildly. Getting an online education at HSE University is better than getting a low-quality education locally in such regions. This is an important thing, but a certain shift in the perception of these processes is required here. It takes some time to move forward.
‘Economic theory is developing dynamically’
— Now we see that economic conditions are changing quite quickly. Is it possible to say that basic economic theory also reacts to external shocks and that some established laws may change in the next decade?
— Yes and no. On the one hand, many things in the economy are indeed changing rapidly. On the other hand (and this is especially relevant in relation to, for example, financial crises) there is the problem of perceiving change as something that is completely new, when in fact it is not. Many processes in the economy are repeated on a cyclical basis. For example, our perception of a modern technological breakthrough is not unique. Before the Great Depression, when a hard-wired phone appeared in every second home or cars began to be produced on an assembly line, people also had the perception that the world had become different.
It is impossible to proceed from the fact that now all economic laws will radically change. Something new appears, some new technologies appear in economics and finance. We will learn better, in fact, how the economy as a whole functions, how individual agents and markets function. In this sense, economic theory is developing dynamically, but not according to the radical principle of changing the entire system of knowledge—we simply learn a lot of new things about it, which we did not pay attention to before or did not understand before.
— Is it necessary to introduce changes in economic theory into the educational process immediately?
— Yes, absolutely. Unfortunately, economic theory is developing simultaneously in two directions: both in terms of a better understanding of economic phenomena, and in terms of more advanced methods of economic analysis with more complex models, more complex mathematics, and so on. It is clear that the latter is not for inclusion in curricula, at least at the bachelor's level, but in terms of the essence of economics, yes, we should not talk in terms of things that characterised yesterday.
For example, if we look through many textbooks in macroeconomics, they describe the behaviour of central banks as it was in the 1960s and 70s. Any economics student will understand: if we describe the money supply as a vertical line at the level of the monetary base, then this is a description of central banks that manage the amount of money, not the interest rate. Unfortunately, not all professors of all universities are ready to adapt educational material to the practice of the present day quickly, but one way or another, this adaptation is taking place.
— What advice would you give to students today?
— The advice to students is always universal. Youth is the period of time when you can effectively invest in yourself and in your development. How to do it best is an individual question for each student. If I tell students that my advice to them is to attend all the lectures... Well, to be honest, when I was a student, I attended lectures, but, as a rule, for some reason I found it easier to think about information while reading books.
In any case, students should try to develop various competencies to the maximum. And it’s better to approach it without being too pragmatic
As I said, many things that we teach may seem abstract, unnecessary. In fact, why does one need to know all this? After all, when we go to the supermarket, we do not carry a notebook with us, we do not draw a budget constraint and an indifference curve. However, by developing these kind of fairly general skills, we create the basis for further learning.
It is sometimes said that people first need to ‘plow’ their minds before something can grow there. This should be taken quite seriously, because pragmatism in undergraduate education leads to restrictions in one’s further life trajectory. It is better to obtain as much as possible now in order to have more opportunities in the future.
Text by Kamila Rafibekova and Milena Serkebaeva, interns at the Laboratory for Economic Journalism.
Translation by Olga Krylova, intern at the International Office of the Faculty of Economic Sciences, third-year student of the HSE and NES Joint Programme in Economics