Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Post-autistic economics in the University?

Although Post-Autistic Economics (PAE - see http://www.paecon.net/) now prefers to call itself 'Real-world economics', the 'autism' word is very useful in describing the kind of economic thinking which the PAE movement reacts against. It at least makes it easy to spot when economists find themselves pouring over graphs and formulae in isolation from the human realities around them.

Critical Realism has played a key role in the critique of this kind of practice and the move towards something more grounded in reality. Tony Lawson's work on 'Reorienting Economics', the Cambridge Journal of Economics, and the Cambridge Realist Workshop have all provided valuable spaces for the exploration of what economics might look like if it actually took account of reality and ontology, rather than simply sought to apply mathematical and abstract tools to problems. There is little doubt in my mind, and the minds of many in the real-world economics group, that such abstraction is largely responsible for the terrible state we find ourselves in now. And those economists who preceded the movement, but similarly complained about formalism (Hayek stands out in this regard) would be tempted to say "I told you so!"

But autistic economic thinking is endemic, not just in government circles. Currently, there is little else in University governance. Yet education urgently demands ontological examination and real-world economics, because autism in University governance clearly will not address the problems of students, and those  problems have to be addressed if students are to continue attending, or at least not to become victims of pathological institutional behaviour. Autistic thinking in University governance will alienate learners who are already alienated by government policy. None of the clever graphs of retention, income, expenditure or fees will warm the hearts of students. All they represent are the inner concerns of the institution. All they express is a cynical disinterest in the real concerns of students. The double-bind is explicit:
"get the students in, keep them there, take their money and block any routes of escape to ensure our (the institution's) survival." 
I think Universities should put students first, not themselves. For all the fear-mongering, institutions will be ok because the students have nowhere else to go (it's interesting that student numbers this year are largely holding up, despite the direst predictions last year... it goes unnoticed, without the slightest questioning of the theory which said they would all disappear!).

But the students now have new and massive problems thanks to the industrialisation of education. They bear risks and anxieties which were unknown to the generation of teachers within institutions. They are subject to government-led manipulation of regulatory frameworks for employment which will force students into education which they will be forced to pay for for most of their working lives. It's like forcing people to buy a car, and consequently forcing them to buy compulsory and exorbitant insurance.  All for the good of the economy.

Successful businesses are successful because they understand their customers. Autistic business which only look at their own operations go bust. All universities at the moment have autistic tendencies in their governance. Someone, sometime, somewhere will crack this. Autistic institutions better watch out!

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