UU launches new Bachelor's programme combining maths and economics

Photo: DUB / Evelyne Jacq

Professor Coen Teulings, an economist, and professor Ieke Moerdijk, a mathematician, sowed the seeds for this new initiative in the end of 2019. They were surprised to see there wasn't much of a cross-over between the Economics and Mathematics programmes at UU. The Economics one has been traditionally characterised by its collaborations with social sciences, law, geography and history. But the connection with mathematics, which some would say is quite obvious, remained limited.

The two departments agreed with the professors: acquiring knowledge from both disciplines can be really useful when trying to gain a better understanding of new, complex and data-intensive processes such as the introduction of cryptocurrencies in the banking sector, the multitude of factors contributing to climate change, and the developments surrounding the coronavirus.

Encouraged by the Executive Board, which champions interdisciplinarity, the two departments devised a few scenarios that would help foster the cooperation. Because of the good experience with the other double Bachelor’s programmes, namely Mathematics & Physics and Mathematics & Computer Science, they decided to link Mathematics and Economics in a similar way. Titled Economics and Mathematics, the new programme will be advertised during the open days for upcoming Bachelor’s students this Friday, November 19, and Saturday, November 20.

More credits
Studying Economics and Mathematics in Utrecht is unique because the new programme will be offered by two different faculties: Law, Economics and Governance and the Faculty of Science. Nowhere else in the Netherlands can students study both disciplines at the same time. Therefore, UU hopes that the new programme will attract high-schoolers that normally would not have considered studying in Utrecht.

Students will graduate fully in both disciplines, and get both a Mathematics and an Economics degree. Because of a clever system of study tracks and combined courses, this can be done with 225 study credits, which means that students will need 45 study credits, or six courses. That's more than just one Bachelor’s degree. If they prefer to complete their studies in three years, like the students going for a single Bachelor’s degree, then they will have to follow multiple courses at the same time.

Students can choose among three tracks: mathematics, economics & policy; mathematics & finance; or econometrics & data. For the most part, they will be following existing courses from the two Bachelor’s programmes, though some courses have been developed specifically to the new programme.

Solid foundation
“The unique thing about this double Bachelor’s programme is that we can combine both in-depth knowledge and application”, explains Kees Oosterloo, professor in Mathematics. Oosterlee, who used to work at the Center for Mathematics & Computer Science in Amsterdam, as well as at TU Delft, arrived in Utrecht nine months ago to head the new project.

According to Oosterlee, current Mathematics students are interested in having a concrete societal impact with their specialised knowledge. As for Economics students, they often want to know the mathematical basis of the algorithms they use to calculate cost-benefit analyses.  “Students will now get a solid foundation in both mathematics and economics. The mutual benefits are extremely interesting to me.”

Professor Erik Stam, head of the Utrecht School of Economics, knows that there is no shortage of students interested in obtaining an education in economics in Utrecht. That's why some teachers fear that the new initiative is going to increase their workload. But Stam is enthusiastic about the new plan. “If something is a good idea, then it is a good idea. We had been looking for a new combination of mathematics and economics that truly contributes something in this country, as we often hear: 'oh, you are going to offer an econometrics program. But there are good programmes out there already, so why would we want that?'”  

Curious about societal themes
In comparison to existing econometrics programs, UU students enrolled in the new programme will get more mathematics courses. After obtaining their Bachelor’s, they can go for a Master’s degree in Mathematics, which is not an option for Econometrics students. At the same time, the new Bachelor's programme has more economics courses with a societal slant, looking at issues like sustainability or innovation, for instance.

The target group for the new ‘’convergence program” are students that excel in mathematics and are very interested in economics. Oosterlee: “But above all, they need to be very curious, and they must want to contribute to society. How can we best shape the energy transition? How can we keep our pension system affordable?”

Mathematics and economics play an enormous part in the answers to those questions, ponders Oosterlee. The programme's websites names a series of examples of societal questions to which the knowledge they offer can be useful: how can we regulate the growing power of big tech companies in a data-driven world? How can we determine the price of CO2 with the aim to reduce emissions? Graduates can use their knowledge to give sound advice to companies, governments and other organisations making impactful decisions or shaping policy.

Additional challenge
Oosterlee does not fear that the heavier program will put too much pressure on new students, though he thinks that universities should carefully consider students' complaints and watch out to see if students are suffering because of the pressure to perform. UU hopes to admit 30 students to the Bachelor’s programme.

“I think that only students that have a lot of intrinsic motivation will choose our approach. But we will have to monitor them well. They can still decide to finish only one of the two Bachelor’s degrees.”

Erik Stam adds: “I don’t want to call into question the high workload many students experience, but there is also a group of students that actually want more of a challenge. UU wants to meet those needs with this program.”

In Denmark, students following a comparable education often underestimate the mathematics part, which is why Utrecht would like to prevent the same problem from happening here. “If students have doubts about whether they should just study Economics or the double Bachelor’s program, we don’t hesitate to tell them that mathematics is not something you can just do on the side. You are following a fully-fledged education. It’s tough.”

New research
Oosterlee: “Research into complex systems, about how complicated networks function and how underlying actor relationships work, are a hot topic in mathematics. That matters to the world of finance, to international trade, the climate, public health and many other things. It’s about extremely exciting developments.”

The double Bachelor’s offers students the opportunity to proceed their education with an interesting Master’s degree, says Oosterlee. At the moment, they are searching for researcher-lecturers who can shape this new research field in Utrecht, although talks about financing are still ongoing.

The language of instruction is another point being currently considered. Although the Economics education is taught fully in English, many of the mathematics courses are ministered in Dutch. Oosterlee: “We will have to carefully consider this. We think that this double Bachelor’s programme could be very interesting to international students.”