Alumni profile: The Professor of common sense

February 9, 2015

Professor Wendy Carlin’s face lights up when she describes what it was like to be one of only a few hundred undergraduate students in the first year of a then-brand spanking new Murdoch University in 1975.

In its foundation year, only 510 students were accepted at Murdoch University from 2000 applications, with 8000 students in total listing it as one of their preferences.

The young Wendy Carlin thought she wanted to study comparative literature but took a decided change of tack in her first week of study. She eventually graduated in 1979 with a BA and a Diploma in Education, before heading to the UK’s Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship.

Fast forward a few decades and Wendy Carlin is now a world-renowned economist, Professor of Economics at University College London, visiting Professor at the University of Oxford, a research fellow at the UK Centre for Economic Policy Research, and a member of the Expert Advisory Panel of the Office for Budget Responsibility in the UK.

With colleague David Soskice she has co-authored tomes on macroeconomics – Macroeconomics and the Wage Bargain and the textbook Macroeconomics: Imperfections, Institutions and Policies and has a new book soon set for release on meeting global financial crisis challenges.

For many years she was also co-Managing Editor of the influential publication Economics of Transition.

She has, in the most complimentary of senses, recently been dubbed in the international financial press as “the professor of common sense”, for her somewhat novel but increasingly popular push to teach ‘real-world economics’.

Moving from a brand new Australian university with a decided penchant for academic experimentation, to the hallowed halls of a very traditional Oxford University was an experience Wendy still recalls vividly.

“I arrived in the English autumn and going from Western Australia and a small, new university to Oxford was certainly a dramatic cultural shock,” she laughed.

“When I started at Murdoch it was really very exciting with only 500 or so students and a new campus sort of in the middle of the sand hills.

“There was a real sense that this was kind of a joint project between a group of brave students and equally brave teachers – a conscious decision by everyone to be there.”

Wendy said that in 1975 the university was quite deliberately different from the well-established University of WA and the then-Curtin Institute of Technology.

“There was a sense that Murdoch University took students who wanted to take a bit of a leap in the direction of their education,” she said.

“Many were mature students who had a go at university earlier on and didn’t really like it and now wanted something different and there were people not just from Perth but interstate and internationally.

“That diversity was not just in the students but true also of the faculty teaching there.”

Wendy remains impressed with what she described as Murdoch’s ‘trunk’ and ‘multidisciplinary’ course offerings at the time.

“It was very exciting and really diverse,” she said. “I did a whole range of courses including economics, which is what I decided I wanted to do over the first semester.

“I did ‘population and world resources’ and integrated social sciences with environmental science and another very interesting course on the Middle East.

“You could do special, individually designed subjects where you could propose what you wanted to do and I think that type of environment was an outcome of the pressures of the times.”

Wendy rapidly built on her Murdoch University start, earning at Oxford University a M.Phil and later a D.Phil, Economics, in 1987 (the Oxford equivalent of a PhD).

She lectured in economics at Christ Church College, Oxford from 1983 to 1986, and then went on to work at University College London, where she was first appointed to a post in Economics in 1987.

“In the past 30 years the Economics Department has changed dramatically and moved to be one of the best in the world – so it’s turned out to be an extremely lucky place to get a job,” Wendy joked modestly.

Today her research focuses on macroeconomics, institutions and economic performance and the economics of transition, but she’s recently been kept busy leading the CORE Project – an international initiative set to reform the undergraduate economics curriculum.

Wendy is a key member of an international team of 25 economists passionate about using the best economic lessons of the past 30 years, along with the latest technology, to address today’s economic challenges and to teach the subject so that it resonates with today’s students.

Funded by the Institute of New Economic Thinking (New York) and based at Oxford University’s Martin School, the project involves the creation of a new Introduction to Economics course in the form of an e-book.

“This is the beginning and we see it as creating a community of curriculum innovators contributing resources and finding new ways of teaching,” Wendy said.

“The e-book will be available to anyone, anywhere in the world, to use for free and it uses interactive techniques and lots of real world modelling to keep students engaged.”

When she’s not focusing on economics Wendy catches up on news of her children – a daughter who is a doctor and a son who works in management consulting.

Both she and her late husband ensured that the family maintained close links with family and friends in Australia and both her children have worked here.

Wendy was presented with an Honorary Doctorate in Economics by Murdoch University in September 2014.

For more information on Professor Carlin and the Core Project see the CORE website: www.core-econ.org

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