This is the English translation of this original Dutch article published on the Dutch economics debate platform MeJudice.
A debate rages about the focus of our academic programmes: national or international, Dutch- or English-language? According to young economists Joris Tieleman and Sam de Muijnck, more Dutch-speaking courses would be good. More importantly, there is a lack of subjects that offer concrete knowledge and insight into the Dutch and European economy, institutions and social issues.
This week, a debate broke out about the added value of academic education to Dutch society. The concrete cause was an announcement by minister Dijkgraaf: from now on government wants to have a say in the language in which universities offer their courses (Het Parool, 16 June 2023). Subsequently Dutch economics twitter was full of outrage.
Political steering of academic education does not benefit the quality and independence of the university. Often, ‘steering from above’ leads to performative ‘box ticking’, an extra bureaucratic burden. Still, there is certainly room for improvement within the field. In this article, we argue that more nationally and regionally oriented education would be valuable in preparing Dutch economics students for their future work. Language is only a small factor in this. Certainly for a socially-oriented education like economics, the content of the subjects is very decisive for the extent to which their graduates will be able to contribute to Dutch society, especially the focus on the national and regional context. To be clear, we do not advocate entirely Dutch-language education, both in terms of programmes and subjects within each programme. That would be a considerable step backwards intellectually.
We also leave aside in this article the question of whether our universities should focus on attracting and teaching large numbers of foreign students – that is a broader debate. Our focus here is purely on the optimal training of Dutch professional economists. After all, they constitute the bulk of economics students in undergraduate studies.
Research question and background
Our key question: to what extent do current degree programmes prepare their students to work as economists in the Dutch context? We base our research on Van Dalen, Klamer and Koedijk’s 2014-2015 economists’ survey on the differences between the needs of academic and professional economists. For this, they surveyed 450 economists affiliated with Dutch universities and 403 other members of the KVS, characterised as ‘economists working in practice’.
Language is not explicitly mentioned in their survey. However, it does show that of all their tasks, university economists experience the highest performance pressure around publishing research in highly regarded international journals, and that at the top of the list of the ‘ideal qualities of an academic economist’ is being good at empirical research. For this, students benefit most from English-language teaching and a focus on technical skills for complex quantitative research.
For professional economists, the top of the list is that they need a ‘vision on future developments’. To what extent education prepares them for this is another debate. In second place is ‘making economics simple and understandable’. That requires mastering a Dutch-language economic vocabulary and understanding Dutch-language policy debates on economics. Next come ‘a sound knowledge of the Dutch economy’ and ‘placing topics in historical context’, and only then come the scientific literature and mathematical and statistical qualities.
The economist survey shows that academic and professional economists differ in their professional requirements. A common counter-argument is: don’t young professional economists learn everything in practice? After all, no study can fully prepare them for a job and, besides, academic courses are not meant to be professional training. True, but a broad basic knowledge of the professional field is apparently a requirement for economists going into practice, and is usually only partially found in the workplace. As an entry-level economist, you usually end up in a particular policy or corporate silo, and while there you may learn the ropes of that department’s trade, you do not gain an understanding of the broader system of which you are a part.
For this article, we look at the course descriptions of all undergraduate economics programmes in the Netherlands. Starting with language, because that is where the debate started. Then we open up the question wider and examine to what extent the programmes impart to their students the basic knowledge of Dutch economic institutions, sectors and key social issues.
Language: Dutch or English?
To start with, we look at the language in which programs are offered. There is something to be said for both Dutch and English there. Those who have learned to think, talk and read about economics at a high level in English have easier access to international academic journals, and can more easily enter into discussions with international professional colleagues.
Academic economists are, much more strongly than professional economists, focused on publishing in international (predominantly US) academic journals (Van Dalen, Klamer, Koedijk, 2015). Being able to follow the Dutch policy debate in one’s own language is of little help in this regard, so academic economists often prefer to work in English.
For their students, it is a different matter. Only 3% of those pursuing a bachelor’s degree in economics eventually go into science, measured as the number who start with a PhD thesis (Tieleman, De Muijnck, Kavelaars, Ostermeijer, 2017). They would benefit greatly from learning specific Dutch economic jargon, and from following Dutch (linguistic) policy debates. Some immersion is required to become fluent in it, and also to learn to read and listen between the lines.
What do the data say? There is currently no fully Dutch-language bachelor of economics, but one is coming (Leiden). There are also five programmes that teach in both languages (VU, Wageningen, Nijmegen, Rotterdam, Tilburg). Here, roughly speaking, first-year lectures and tutorials are done in Dutch. Then there are four universities that offer their bachelor’s only in English (UvA, Maastricht, Utrecht, Groningen). So a large majority of courses are offered only in English.
This favours the small group of students who want to go into science. In contrast, the vast majority of students who will go on to work in Dutch governments or industry lack valuable knowledge and communication skills. Although the measure as currently proposed by Dijkgraaf is rather churlish and unfocused, and we should certainly not retreat behind the dykes, the choice of language in our economics courses can be the subject of a serious discussion.
Content is more important than language
Far more important than language, however, in our view, is the degree of content focus on Dutch and European sectors and institutions. Certainly, we are a small and open country. That international orientation is economically crucial, not to mention the political and cultural benefits. Yet most economic issues largely take place at the national or regional level.
Knowledge of the main Dutch and European sectors and institutions is therefore of great value to a freshly graduated economist. On the one hand, this requires nomothetic knowledge, i.e. knowledge of general patterns, generalisations, ‘economic laws’. This kind of knowledge is mostly the focus of international economics journals and the models from standard (mostly American) textbooks. It also forms the bulk of our economics courses. But solving practical issues also requires idiographic knowledge, of the specific context and situation in which the issue arises. To contribute to practice as an economist, both are needed.
What kind of subjects do economics students receive about our economy? We look at this question at two levels: Dutch and international. After all, for an increasing number of social issues, a purely national lens makes little sense. To this end, we used online course descriptions and the prescribed literature to count how many economics faculties offer (elective) courses that focus primarily on sectors, institutions or concrete social issues. Thus, we do not count those courses that primarily deal with theory or methodology, and use the real world mainly for illustration and in the form of limited cases.
Looking at the Netherlands, the picture is rather sparse. No Dutch economics faculty offers its students an integral picture of the Dutch economy, with, for instance, an overview of the largest sectors and trading partners, or of the main institutions that make up our corporatist polder model.
However, a lot of courses offer theory on institutions. In Nijmegen, Groningen, Maastricht, Tilburg, Utrecht and Wageningen, students are taught new institutional economic theory, with courses such as Economic Growth of Institutions or Institutional Economics, which also include cases on institutions. And all bachelors include at least one course in public economics, usually titled public finance, economics of the welfare state or public sector. There are also courses in labour economics, again suggesting a focus on a real market.
These subjects are visible in Table 1 under the heading ‘Economic sub-disciplines’. They contribute substantially to the depth of courses and to the connection between literature and education. But they are only a partial answer to the question of the social relevance of these studies. Why? In most of these courses, theory forms the bulk of the subject content. The real world is almost always limited to short cases and other excursions. This is a missed opportunity. It means that young economists graduating from Dutch universities have to puzzle this overview together themselves afterwards.
In other countries, this is often more extensive. At a university like Trinity College Dublin (Ireland’s highest regarded university), second-year students receive a standard 10-credit course on The Economy of Ireland. Students “…gain an understanding of the Irish economy and policy-making, see how different pressures and policies have affected the development of the Irish economy over time,…”. All this includes a bit of history, trade policy, analysis of the recent financialisation of the Irish economy and its other top sectors.
If we look not only at courses on Dutch but also on European economic institutions and context, the picture brightens somewhat. Wageningen, Nijmegen, Groningen and Maastricht offer courses on the European Union and Eurozone. These courses often consist of a mix of theoretical knowledge about, for instance, optimal currency areas and contextual knowledge about European institutions, history and policy. Nijmegen also offers the course Comparative Economic and Business Systems, which compares economic institutions of different countries. Finally, Wageningen has the course Governance, Trust and Policy Change, with the international negotiations around the North Sea as a central case study. If we draw the question a little wider and include economic history, which after all is also about the real economy, two more electives appear: Economic History in Rotterdam and Financial History and Intermediation in Tilburg.
In short, most faculties offer one or two courses on the concrete structure and context of economics at European, regional or international level. But the Dutch economy is nowhere treated in its entirety.
So are there more subjects that zoom in on smaller parts of the economy, such as national or regional economic sectors? Again, most Dutch faculties make limited space for this in their teaching. Theory still predominates. However, the empirical revolution is starting to permeate education: increasingly, we see courses where theory is supplemented with econometric data from the scientific literature.
This is the case, for example, in third-year electives such as Port Economics at Erasmus University. But a regression on one or more datasets is quite different from a sector analysis, which highlights the sector’s internal structures, studies the largest parties, looks at international relations and passes by recent developments. That is the kind of knowledge and a way of looking at economics that the average student is often going to desperately need later in his work, unless he belongs to the small minority who stay at university to become an academic researcher. But we have been unable to find that kind of course anywhere in the Netherlands’ undergraduate economics courses, either on Dutch sectors or on European ones.
Economic societal challenges
The current debate revolves around how much society benefits from the economists graduating from our courses. This is not just about knowledge of economic institutions and sectors. Our third question is therefore how much these young people learn about societal challenges such as climate change, economic inequality or financial instability.
At the national level, this is limited. Wageningen offers the subject Economics and Policy in Energy Transition, in which students conduct their own research into the political and economic processes involved in energy transition. In Rotterdam, students can follow Economics of Sustainability, a practical course packed with guest lectures by prominent speakers from various Dutch sectors, no doubt courtesy of the extensive network of the lecturer, former Lower House member Professor Elbert Dijkgraaf. Besides these two valuable examples, we could not find any courses that focus mainly on societal challenges in the Netherlands of an economic nature.
Again, the picture gets a little better when we zoom out to European or global social issues. Free University Amsterdam starts with Economic Challenges. In Tilburg, students learn to communicate towards policymakers in the course Visualizing Data and Writing for Policymakers. Maastricht offers the subject Economics of Transition and Resilience, and at the University of Amsterdam, Economics of Climate Change can be taken.
However, the total remains quite limited: even universities that publicly boast about this devote less than 5% of the credits in their undergraduate courses to it.
Table 1. What themes are covered in undergraduate studies in economics in the Netherlands?
|Engels + Nederlands||x||x||x||x||x|
|Societal challenges Netherlands||x||x|
|Societal challenges international||x||x||x||x|
|Economic history Netherlands|
|Economic history international||x||x|
What conclusions can we draw? First, the language choices of programs favour the few students aiming for an academic career over the many who go on to work as professional economists in the Netherlands. Second, economic institutions are everywhere treated in terms of universal theory, much less as they look in Dutch or European practice. Third, concrete economic sectors are almost not covered. Fourth, there is a small but growing range of courses on societal challenges.
Why is it that our economics courses prepare their students only to a limited extent for practice in the private or public sector as professional economists? It is impossible to draw a firm conclusion on the causes on the basis of these descriptive statistics. But it does seem that the orientation towards international, often American, professional journals, which are after all mainly looking for universal economic laws and have less interest in the specific institutions and sectors of a small country on the North Sea, also imposes considerable opportunity costs on our society.
How could it be otherwise? In our recent book Economy Studies: A Guide to Rethinking Economics Education, we suggest a standard subject Know Your Own Economy, available in Open Access here. We can also learn from international examples such as the subject The Economy of Ireland. Furthermore, university HR policies that give less weight to publishing in international journals and more weight to research on the national or regional economy could also help.
Here, the distinction between language and content is crucial. While academic education in the Dutch language can be very valuable for aspiring economists, it is also perfectly possible to learn about Dutch institutions and sectors in English. And while it may take some searching, there is plenty of strong literature for that as well (e.g. Touwen, 2014). Based on this research, for example, we are currently creating a teaching package ‘Know Your Own Economy: The Netherlands’ within the academic non-profit Centre for Economy Studies.
 Incidentally, this survey also found that about two-thirds of economists working in practice believe that their academic colleagues provide useful insights for policy. One-third did not think so. Whether this is much or little is up to the reader. Either way, it is an interesting piece of data in the context of the current debate on the social contribution of the university.
Harry van Dalen, Arjo Klamer, Kees Koedijk, “De ideale econoom staat onder druk”, Me Judice, 16 maart 2015.
Jeroen Touwen, “The Hybrid Variety: Lessons in Nonmarket Coordination from the Business System in the Netherlands, 1950–2010”, Enterprise & Society, Volume 14 (4), 2014, pp. 849-884
Joris Tieleman, Sam de Muijnck, Maarten Kavelaars and Francis Ostermeijer, “Thinking like an Economist? A quantitative analysis of economics bachelor curricula in the Netherlands”, Rethinking Economics NL, 2017.
Sam de Muijnck, Joris Tieleman, “Economy Studies: A Guide to Rethinking Economics Education”, Amsterdam University Press, 2021.