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Political Economy: Why Sydney Uni?

by Frank Stilwell on June 15, 2017

The University of Sydney is the leading institution for the study of political economy in Australia and one of the leading institutions worldwide. After reviewing the international array of available courses, one US study reported that Sydney has “the world’s most distinctive undergraduate program in heterodox economics”. The postgraduate research program and the Master of Political Economy degree are flourishing too: and the research and publications of faculty members are impressive.

No, this isn’t just me cheering for the home team. Well, I suppose there could be a bit of that: having spent nearly half a century at Sydney working to establish, extend and defend the political economy program, I should plead guilty as charged. But the more important thing is to explain how it all came to be. Why Sydney Uni ?

The full story is told in the book Political Economy Now! The struggle for an alternative economics at the University of Sydney. What follows here is ‘the intro version’, hopefully without too much introversion. Many people put enormous time and energy into the struggle to get the political economy program up and running and there are lots of personal stories that could be told. But the bigger picture is one of intellectual contest, sustained struggle and commitment to making a difference.

The origins go back to the late 1960s when the Department of Economics at the University of Sydney, like most economics departments, had changed its curriculum to the standard courses on micro, macro and quantitative methods in economics. The ‘neoclassical synthesis’, as it had been proclaimed by the leading US economist Paul Samuelson, was hegemonic. Young economics lecturers were expected to structure their teaching accordingly if they wanted to ‘get on’. And everywhere students accepted the curriculum as the standard means of analysing economic issues, based on the separation of “politics” (or states) from “economics” (or markets), like oil and water that don’t mix. They grumbled sometimes about boring lectures, as they still do, but most were either compliant or switched over to what they perceived to be more engaging areas of the social sciences.

By the late 1960s some of the economics students were starting to articulate more coherent critiques. Among the concerns were that the economic theories rested on unrealistic assumptions and put too much emphasis on technique rather than relevance to real-world problems. Some said that there was political bias implicit in the subject, because it presented capitalism in an unrealistically favourable way as a want-satisfying free market economy, while largely ignoring its association with imperialism, exploitation, environmental decay and inequalities based on class and gender. At Sydney Uni these concerns were raised by bright, enthusiastic student leaders like Steve Keen, Michael Brezniak, Angela Nanson and Rod O’Donnell. Some of the academic staff were strongly empathetic to these concerns and wanted to work with the students to drive significant curriculum reform. However, the economics professors who ran the Department of Economics in an authoritarian matter were resistant to any substantial change.

So the scene was set for the start of a conflict, probably the most long-running departmental conflict in the history of the University. It boiled over into university affairs more generally and attracted much media attention. The dissidents’ struggles took many forms: public meetings and debates, posters, numerous demonstrations, occupations of university buildings and much more. They continued for years until the University set up an official inquiry into the dispute which, in 1975, recommended the introduction of an alternative curriculum – initially a two year undergraduate program of political economy units of study in which students could enroll instead of (or as well as) the mainstream economic courses. Thus political economy began to be taught in the Department of Economics against the wishes of the Professors of Economics. It was what my colleague Adam Morton, always with an apt phrase from Antonio Gramsci, would describe as ‘an unstable equilibrium of compromise’.

The students and staff in ‘the political economy movement’, as it came to be known, now focused on getting the authorities to approve a major and honours in political economy. The professors of economics, working in conjunction with other Conservatives within the university, wanted political economy to be marginalised or disbanded and sought to undermine the program in diverse ways. But, after many more years of struggle, more demos, and much else besides, the full political economy undergraduate program was eventually established in the 1980s. Postgraduate education followed in the 1990s. More than thirty years after the struggle began, the University formally recognised that political economy was here to stay by creating a new, separate, Department of Political Economy in 2008.

In hindsight, what is remarkable is the longevity, persistence and resilience of the political economy movement at the University of Sydney. There are many contributory reasons. Most importantly, the political economy courses, once established, didn’t disappoint. Enrolments were buoyant and graduates from the political economy program got good jobs. Their skills of critical thinking and effective communication, combined with their awareness of the political, social and environmental implications of current economic challenges have proved both personally satisfying to the students and attractive to employers. Graduates have included many who are now Australia’s leading current affairs journalists, senior public servants and economic advisers, successful business people, trade union leaders, university professors, prominent community activists and top politicians (including members of the NSW and Federal Parliaments, a State Premier, a Deputy Premier and several Federal Government Ministers).

These graduate successes underpin the strong links between political economy at the University of Sydney and supporters elsewhere in Australian society. A Political Economy Alumni Society complements the active Political Economy Society that the current students run. The academic staff in the Department of Political Economy are supportive of the students through their teaching and supervision, combining that with the development of excellent track records for their personal research and publications. Recent staff hires have included senior Professorial appointments and an array of more junior appointees, with diversity of ethnicity and gender.

After the Global Financial Crisis, the international movement for political economy, challenging mainstream economics, has gained renewed momentum, although still facing enormous difficulty in getting a foothold in university courses elsewhere. Sydney Uni students and staff brought one of the student leaders from the UK’s ‘Post-Crash Economic Society’ to Australia for a speaking tour a couple of years ago. Prominent international political economists have also been frequently brought to Australia to talk, most notably to the prestigious and popular annual Wheelwright lectures at Sydney Uni. These lectures are published in the Journal of Australian Political Economy, together with other important research articles, with the journal editorially centred in the Department of Political Economy at Sydney Uni having national and international reach.

Yet the obstacles to spreading the good word about the political economy alternative to mainstream economics remain enormous. A new book, entitled From Economics to Political Economy, written by Tim Thornton from Latrobe University, provides a careful analysis, including comparison of the Sydney Uni experience with what happened (or, more typically, not happened) at other universities. It is well worth looking at. Based on his own PhD, Tim’s book notes that other Australian universities have seen occasional waves of student dissent, and have sometimes had economics lecturers teaching a few heterodox units of study, but the challenges to orthodoxy have mostly not proved durable. Maybe, hopefully, that can change in the future. Meanwhile, Sydney Uni is the exemplary special case. It ranks with just a few other places around the world where political economy has a well-established, strong and continuing base for teaching, study and research.

Frank Stilwell
Emeritus Professor of Political Economy at the University of Sydney, co-ordinating editor of the Journal of Australian Political Economy (JAPE), and Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia.

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