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In his 2011 book "Debunking Economics: The Naked Emperor Dethroned?", Steve Keen says:

I am curious about the "falling student enrollments" claim. Is this true? I have struggled to find good information online. In many places one doesn't study economics alone, but business, so data is tricky to analyse. For instance, here are some stats on business enrollment at the undergraduate level in the US, showing no net fall in numbers. The little I could find for the UK also shows recent increases. Same for Canada. Australia saw a fall between 1989 and 2001 in "Society and Culture" (which includes economics) but fairly stable afterwards (see Figure 2.5). OECD data between 2013 and 2016 doesn't show a consistent fall in social sciences or business studies across countries (although data is only in terms of percentages).

So, based on poor stats above, it seems the remark by Keen is not right. Any better data on this?

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In short, yes.

Dr Steve Keen is an Australian economist, so if the Australian figures match his claim, there doesn't seem to be much need to look further afield.

In 2018, the Head of the Information Department of the Reserve Bank of Australia, Dr Jacqui Dwyer, delivered a speech - What Happened to the Study of Economics? - which examined a number of statistics around student enrolments.

Perhaps most striking was the number of students who enrolled in Economics in the final year of high school over 25 years:

Graph of Year 12 Economics enrolments

At the university level, enrolment has remained stable:

Graph of university enrolments

(This may hide a drop in enrolment interest, as the number of available student positions is likely the bottleneck, rather than the number of candidates that want to enrol. I don't have a graph of the grades required to be admitted to Economics over time, which would help test my conjecture.)

Dr Dwyer points out another way in which this graph hides an effective drop: enrolments in several related disciplines have been growing by over 2% average every year for 15 years, while economics enrolments have languished.

Average growth over 15 year period for different fields

If you are interested in what has been happening to enrolments in AUstralian economics departments, the whole speech is worth a read.

  • Thanks, but your conclusion seems to be a bit rushed. First, the fall for year 12 enrollment was only pre-2000. Then, it was stable. Hard to argue from here that there is a general disaffection, let alone one one driven by the financial crisis. Second, this fall hasn't reflected in university enrollment, which is what matters for academic economists (see his claim). Economists do not teach year 12+ students. Third, his claim is evidently not restricted to Australia. The book is in no way contained to Australia. So to me, the claim remains, if anything, false. – luchonacho Jul 4 at 10:07
  • To your first point, the claim is about the thirty years prior to 2011, so the huge drop is well within the period. It isn't clear to me where the 'financial crisis' (presumably 2008/2009) comes into the claim? – Oddthinking Jul 4 at 10:57
  • To your second claim, I hinted (without a link, to be fair), that Uni enrolments are more strongly affected by long-term funding than interest levels. If 50,000 students apply for 10,000 places or 12,500 students apply for 10,000 places, there will still be the same number of students enrolled, but the minimum standard will be different. – Oddthinking Jul 4 at 11:02
  • Tot he third point: If I had found demand in Australia was stable or growing, I would have had to look further afield - in case worldwide didn't match Australia. But to give the benefit of the doubt to the claimant, the Australian figures are sufficient. Even if another country's figures tour out to be rising, Keen is reasonably justified in his in-passing claim. – Oddthinking Jul 4 at 11:45

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