Blog: You can… make a difference with economics


Zoe Pushon, Advisor, Productivity Commission

Last week I had the privilege of attending the Make A Difference with Economics - Real World Economics awards to present the award for the best case study, along with my fellow judges.

The Real World Economics competition encourages students to work in teams to solve a problem or issue in New Zealand using their training. I have been involved with the competition myself first as a competitor, then as an organiser, and last year I was President of Make a Difference with Economics, so I know how useful these competitions can be in developing skills and experience that helps graduates move into the workforce.

In the Tertiary Education team here, we are currently working on how the New Zealand tertiary education system can tackle the many challenges ahead, including the predicted declining number of students, rapid developments in technology, and the changing nature of work.

One current feature of the New Zealand tertiary system is that New Zealand universities (like universities in Australia and some US states such as Massachusetts) are required to undertake research alongside teaching. The idea of research-led teaching is deeply embedded in the culture of New Zealand universities and is a defining feature of their operation.

We asked the competing teams to provide advice to the Productivity Commission about the bundling of research and teaching at universities in New Zealand, looking at the advantages and disadvantages. We considered the four entries based on whether they could provide a good explanation of the economics of the issue. We also considered the quality of their analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of bundling together research and teaching in NZ universities, and the recommendations for change or maintaining the status quo.

Team B won with their case study and presentation “Teaching and Research: A Good Bundle?”. Runners up were Scott’s Snakes with “An analysis of changing the New Zealand tertiary education model and recommendations for the bundling of teaching and research”.

Winning team: Team B - John MacCormick (Judge - MoE), Judy Kavanagh (Judge), Madi Barnett, William Teng, Rebecca D'Silva, and Zoe Pushon and Izi Sin (Motu), Judges.

Runners up: Scott’s Snakes -  John MacCormick, Izi Sin, Scott Manion, Jandrei Nelson, Daniel Blease, Jack Leonard, Judy Kavanagh and Zoe Pushon.

Most entries argued for continuing a combination of research and teaching at universities, but with bright ideas such as revamping the lecture model to include more interactive learning that promotes questioning, discussion and teamwork (much like the MADE competition itself!) or providing students with the ability to specialise in research or industry focus after their first year of tertiary study.

One thing the competition does is highlight the link between economics and policy; how the insights of economics can help to develop policy to change outcomes. It’s something that the teams struggled with – how a bright idea or policy intervention actually gets to happen and what government can do to incentivise change and see it implemented…. and what perverse incentives government might also create in doing so.

What impressed us about the winners was how well they responded to questions - they thought logically and responded thoughtfully. This showed a real depth of understanding of the topic.

Overall, it was a great learning opportunity for the students, and it introduced us to some future stars of economics. The four judges gave some fantastic advice to students about thinking like an economist, and I spoke to the students about getting involved with more economic events as well as my particular project at the Commission, using data from the Integrated Data Infrastructure to see whether differences in students’ completion and retention rates in tertiary education can be explained by differences in prior school achievement or demographic or socio-economic characteristics. I hope it has inspired them to continue with a path in economics.

Disclaimer: Blog posts are written by staff members and do not represent the official views of the Productivity Commission. 

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