Political Economy at risk from restructure

ECOP is no stranger to struggle, Edward Furst reports

The study of Political Economy at the University of Sydney has a lively history, characterised by conflict, struggle and compromise. The fight to establish Political Economy courses at the University involved protests attended in the thousands, led by the student politicians who would go on to become today’s political figures. The Department’s seemingly perpetual struggle may be set to continue as the University finalises plans for its largest organisational restructure on record.

The fight to establish a department of Political Economy began in the early 1970s, when, in response to mounting discontent with the orthodox nature and limited range of economic courses on offer, staff and students held a “day of protest”. Their desire for a more holistic approach to economics that recognised the importance of societal institutions, power imbalances, historical contexts, and political ends inherent in any study of the economy, was at odds with the increasing dominance of orthodox economics. Traditional and mathematically-centred orthodox economics is more concerned with statistical and analytical elegance.  It attempts to imitate the “hard sciences”, such as physics, and ignores the complexities of society.

In response to the dispute, the University was forced to establish a committee of inquiry that recommended creating a separate department of Political Economy. This proposal was rejected by the Department of Economics, who succeeded in diminishing the committee’s proposals and instead introduced a small number of individual courses on political economy to be taught within their department.

Unsurprisingly, the staff and students who had pushed for greater change were not satisfied, marking the beginning of a 35-year struggle to establish a dedicated department of Political Economy. Their vision was only realised in 2008.

The dispute between those advocating the study of political economy and those opposing it raged through the 1970s and 1980s. It featured increasingly militant student protests, multiple student suspensions, and the sacking of several academics. Indeed in June 1983, an entire issue of Honi Soit was dedicated to the issue. In 1979, as President of the Students’ Representative Council, Tony Abbott staunchly opposed the push for political economy courses, while Anthony Albanese took to the clock tower in the Quadrangle, along with fellow protestors, to support them. Malcolm Turnbull tried to play a mediating role between the Department of Economics and students, and succeeded in carrying a motion to establish a second committee of inquiry, but ultimately failed to ease tensions.

In 1987, a new degree, the Bachelor of Economics (Social Sciences) or BEc(SocSci), was introduced by the Faculty of Economics, successfully purging Political Economy from its main Bachelor of Economics (BEc) degree. The introduction of the BEc(SocSci) gave scope for the expansion of Political Economy units on offer and opened the door for an honours program. Enrolments in the new degree were strong from the beginning, and its requisite school leavers’ score usually matched that of the BEc. In some years, it exceeded it.

The 1990s and 2000s saw the BEc(SocSci) change form. A masters program in Political Economy was introduced, and the study of Political Economy was reallocated from the Faculty of Economics and Business to the Faculty of Arts. This paved the way for a dedicated department of political economy to be established, and saw the BEc(SocSci) degree evolve into its current incarnation, the Bachelor of Political, Economic and Social Sciences (BPESS) in 2008.

As the University finalises its proposed restructure, due to be released early this year, challenges are once again posed for the study of political economy. The proposed restructure would scrap the BPESS undergraduate degree, but retain the BEc.

Emeritus Professor Frank Stilwell, who joined the Department of Economics in 1970 and was central to the struggle for political economy over the subsequent decades, describes this decision as “pernicious”, saying “if the university restructure involves terminating the BPESS degree, we [the department] will be worse off”. Despite students still being able to take Political Economy units within other degrees, Stilwell says that “enrolments [in political economy units] would suffer, and therefore in the medium term, our staffing would suffer under these proposals”. The introduction of the BEc(SocSci) alongside the BEc aimed to resolve the dispute within the Economics Department, and if its contemporary were to be abolished, it would create a “very unbalanced” system according to Stilwell.

The world after the global financial crisis is in greater need of alternative approaches to economics than ever before. Economic inequality, instability and climate change highlight this need, and according to Stilwell “if we don’t have institutional arrangements that focus on these complex problems in an interdisciplinary way, the University will not be properly carrying out its functions in society. And so it is absolutely imperative that we retain a department of Political Economy, a degree of BPESS, that gives students the opportunity to study and research in these crucially important areas.”

For more than four decades, the political economy dispute has raged at Sydney University. The events of the past decade suggest the study of Political Economy is more relevant than ever.