There has been a stark decline in the size and diversity of the Year 12 Economics student population in Australia since the early 1990s. This paper addresses 3 key questions to uncover what is driving these trends at Australia's high schools. First, which school and individual characteristics are most strongly associated with choosing Economics? Second, what are students' perceptions of Economics? And third, what differences in perceptions of Economics exist by sex and socio-economic background? The authors utilise unit record data from a Reserve Bank of Australia commissioned survey of over 4,800 students in Years 10 to 12 (15 to 18 year olds) and administrative school-level data on high schools in New South Wales. The RBA-led survey provides a unique primary source of data on high school students' perceptions of Economics that is novel to the Australian and international literature.
The authors find that high school students typically have positive perceptions of economics as a field; however, the perceptions of Economics as a subject tend to be negative. Males and students from a higher socio-economic background have more favourable perceptions of Economics than other students, which is reflected in a higher likelihood of them choosing to study Economics. Controlling for a greater perceived understanding of what Economics is about does appear to reduce some of the sex and socio-economic differences in perceptions, but a gap remains. In particular, it remains that females have less interest in Economics and a less clear idea of ‘whether they would be good at it’ or what the subsequent career opportunities may be. Furthermore, students from a lower socio-economic background are less likely to feel ‘they could do well in Economics if they put their mind to it’, and less likely to report that teachers at their school promote the study of Economics. And both females and students from a lower socio-economic background are more likely to believe that ‘it is a risk to study Economics because I don't know what it's about’, and have more favourable perceptions of Business Studies. The results shed light on the scope for interventions to promote participation and diversity in the study of Economics.