The demographics of the school economics classroom have changed significantly.
There has been a sharp decline in the number and diversity of year 12 economics enrolments in Australia, with girls and students from lower socio-economic groups representing the largest dip.
According to a report by the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) released in June 2020, overall enrolments in year 12 economics have fallen by 70 per cent in the last 30 years.
The report also recorded a 78 per cent nationwide decline in girls enrolling in economics since 1992.
“It’s now about 65 per cent boys and 35 per cent girls [enrolled in economics at high school] and [it’s] getting even more unequal,” says Gigi Foster, professor at the School of Economics at the University of NSW and host of ABC RNs The Economists.
“Girls have been flocking away from economics,” she says.
And the gap in economic studies between socio-economically advantaged schools and disadvantaged schools has grown wider, with an 87 per cent decline in economics enrolments by lower socio-economic groups measured in NSW.
“So, today, you’re now about three times more likely to see economics as an option … if you attend a high school in a rich area than in a poor one,” Foster says.
In other words, students are far more likely to study economics if they are male and attend school in a wealthy suburb.
This wasn’t always the case. Up until the early 90s, economics was a popular subject and enrolments were roughly equal between females and males.
If the shift in balance is left unchecked, experts say it presents a serious problem.
When did the shift start?
According to researchers at the RBA, economics was the third most popular subject in Australian high schools in the early 1990s, and it was offered in nearly all schools nationwide.
But today, it is taught in less than one-third of government schools and a little over half of non-government schools.
That, says Professor Foster, has resulted in a “massive decline” in economic enrolments and economic literacy.
She says the trend began when economics was displaced by the introduction of business, legal and other vocational studies into the high school curriculum.
Professor Foster also cites the economy itself as one of the reasons for a decline in enrolments.
“Until about the mid-90s, people here in Australia were pretty economically literate because they had to be. There was a recession … and there were major economic reforms that happened in the 70s, 80s [and] 90s that had to be explained to people and they had to be able to understand [that] it affected their back pocket,” Professor Foster says.
In recent times, that need for knowledge hasn’t been the same.
“We’ve enjoyed a … pretty benign economic expansion, and a kind of slowdown in the pace of economic reforms for most of the 2000s. And that meant that there wasn’t … as much to talk about economics-wise around the dining table,” she says.
How to change things?
Leith Thompson, an economics teacher at Sydney Grammar School, says many students today equate economics with some of society’s biggest problems.
“In some classrooms, [there’s] definitely a perception that economics equals business, equals pillaging and plundering the environment, and society and everything else,” she tells ABC RNs The Economists.
“So, [there’s] definitely this feeling where [they] lump all economics into the basket of organisations that have … caused them all sorts of harm,” she says.
But Thompson wants students to know that this is the wrong way to look at economics.
“[We need] to get them to understand that economics is the language that politicians speak.
“We need them to understand that as opposed to … economics and economists being the enemy and the root of all evil,” she says.
Jacqui Dwyer, head of the Information Department at the RBA, agrees.
After identifying the decline in enrolments, she commissioned a survey in 2019 of nearly 5,000 NSW high school students from years 10 to 12 to understand how and why they chose their subjects. She also wanted to understand their perceptions of economics.
The survey confirmed that students’ perception played a big role in their decision not to study economics. Boys were more likely than girls to find economics interesting as a field of study. And girls were more likely than boys to perceive business studies as more useful and more interesting than economics.
By contrast, girls were more likely to report a negative perception of economics, even if they attended school in a wealthy area.
The survey also revealed that girls and those from socio-economically disadvantaged schools were less likely to have a clear understanding of economics or the career opportunities it might offer.
“[Girls] have less understanding of whether they could be good at it or where it might take them, so they think it is a risk to study,” Dwyer says.
“Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds have very similar perceptions and concerns.”
Dwyer is keen for students to understand that economics has broad career applications because of the analytical skills it teaches.
“Economics really equips you for all sorts of problem solving and analysis,” she says.
“There are so many interesting jobs that use economics. And of course, you can also choose to be an economist,” Dwyer says.
What’s the long term impact?
Experts like Dwyer and Professor Foster agree that a decline in the size and diversity of those studying economics, as well as the broader decline in economic literacy across the student population, is worrying.
“Diversity has bearing on the economic questions we ask and how we answer them,” Dwyer says.
“And because those who study economics shape the discipline and determine economic policies, we all benefit when economics graduates are broadly representative of society. So it matters.”
What’s the solution?
To address to declining economics enrolments and diversity of students, the RBA introduced a public education program in 2016 to support economics students and educators. It also created educational resources about economics, all of which is available to schools across Australia, and a team of young economist “ambassadors” who speak with students at school about the industry.
Dwyer hopes that these initiatives will help reverse the enrolment trend and drive them back up to what they once were.
“Every day our lives are affected by economic decisions that are made by others. If we are less educated about economics, we are less equipped to understand or react to changes in our economic environment,” Dwyer says.
“We really need to engage these students if the discipline is to become more inclusive.”