Speaking Truth to Power: Reflections of an educator and economist

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Apr 19, 2019
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This article is part of a Forum Network series on the 20th anniversary of the OECD Forum, contemplating its past and imagining its future.  

Professor Colm Harmon is Vice Provost at the University of Sydney. From October he will be Vice Principal (Students) and Professor of Applied Economics at the University of Edinburgh.

The offer to reflect on the past 20 years of the Forum through my lens of experience and the intertwining world of the OECD was just too tempting. As an economist and as an educator, 20 years truly has been a lifetime.    

It’s been a lifetime for me – pretty much all of my professional post-PhD life is covered by that period. For the discipline of economics, it has been many lifetimes, with the very foundations on which economics is formed being questioned: from within, through developments like behavioural economics; and from without, through the implosion of the global economy and the sense that the paradigms that underpin economics are being rewritten.   


And higher education has been similarly buffeted on many fronts – visibly through things like the rise of online education provision, and more harmfully through the increasing precarity of public support for higher education funding.  

Yet, when I think through it all, what I am left with is the incredible resilience that can prevail.   

Photo by Karim Manjra on Unsplash

When I wrote for the Forum in 2017, my theme was uncertainty around the “contract” we had with bright young students: that they could get into university, leave, and have a great job for life. That won’t hold for the students entering university today, or the generation to come, and so for the first time uncertainty has entered that social contract.    

I think both higher education and economics – my professional life – are better now (or will get better) than they ever were precisely because they reacted to the headwind swiftly and with honest self-reflection.  

I think the response of higher education has been remarkable….questioning at a fundamental level what and how we teach, forming a sense of understanding of our students from long before they come to university and retaining connection with them long after they leave. The notion that stakeholders with important views who are outside the academy should be involved in shaping our offering has become an increasing norm (notably employers). Internationalisation, experiential, curriculum reform – all have become the key responses. I see the next evolution of the academy as one that stresses the need for symmetry in the education and research mission. The failure of the MOOC online revolution to take hold is, in part, due to the social nature of the University – we fail as educators to make our students valued, and indeed co-creators of our institutional future, at our peril. 


Similarly, for economics, the questioning of the discipline’s foundation (often in my view ill-informed) did lead to an unprecedented reimagining of what economics IS…how it forms ideas and translates ideas and how is must connect to its own history. The evolution of thinking of how we teach economics has been matched by a quite remarkable assessment by the discipline around issues such as diversity of views, ideas and most importantly gender within the discipline. 


The way this relates back to the OECD and the Forum as a “crucible” as Anthony Gooch noted is that the OECD provided the safe port for dealing with the headwinds. As a participant at the Forum since 2013, the themes have all been representations of the headwinds affecting all of society. But the Forum always provided an anchor – a running theme typically within the “inclusive growth” concept to give context to the debates. Think big, think huge, in fact, be challenging, be challenged but bring those ideas back down to your context and realise that the issues you are facing are being faced by many others in public and private life. That shared experience is the great value of the Forum.

Beyond 2020, what might the evolution of the Forum be? Indeed of OECD? The OECD in my view is at its most powerful when “speaking truth to power”. The work on issues such as banking regulation or international tax behaviours may seem esoteric but they are critical examples of work where someone needed to be the anchor in the debate. Developments in higher education, such as the need to promote and shape true mobility of qualifications in the so-called micro-credentials space, could benefit greatly from the role the OECD could play as an arbiter of sorts. Could we see true portability of credentials, gathered across institutions and countries? Pushing forward education as an engine of social change? If we are to see that, we may need the debating platform of the OECD Forum, and the muscle of the OECD, to make this happen.     

What a milestone. Cheers to the next 20 years.  

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Related Topics

New Societal Contract
Future of Education & Skills
OECD Forum 20th AnniversaryOECD Forum 2019

Find out more about OECD Forum 2019: World in EMotion

OECD Forum 2019: World in EMotion
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Colm Harmon

Vice Provost and Professor of Economics , The University of Sydney

Labour Economics, Education Economics

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