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The battle of ECO230: IR students unsuccessfully petition for retroactive CR/NCR option

Cancelled economics course controversial for alleged poor management, unfair grading
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International relations (IR) students recently launched a petition to the Faculty of Arts & Science advocating that any IR student who had taken ECO230 — International Economic Institutions and Policy in the past should have the option to retroactively declare it a credit/no credit (CR/NCR) course.

Students in Trinity College’s IR programs of study were required to take ECO230 until the course’s cancellation, effective this year. The course has faced intense criticism from IR students over a span of years, with complaints alleging Academic Handbook violations, discrepancies between course material and course evaluations, and extreme difficulty. 

The petition, supported by the Arts and Science Student Union (ASSU) and the International Relations Society (IRSoc), did not yield success.

Cleared from the curriculum

ECO230 was ultimately removed from the Department of Economics offerings and the IR program requirements in the 2020–2021 academic calendar, replaced in both by single-semester courses ECO231 — Economics of Global Trade, and ECO232 — Global Macroeconomics and Policies.

“It was not a simple case of splitting Y-course content across two H-courses: a significant amount of deliberation and consultation went into specifying learning objectives for the two new courses,” wrote Robert Gazzale, Associate Professor and Department of Economics Associate Chair Undergraduate Studies, to The Varsity. Gazzale indicated that the change was part of a  trend in the faculty to split yearlong courses into half-year courses.

In an email to The Varsity, Professor Michael Ratcliffe, Dean of Arts and Vice-Provost Faculty of Arts at Trinity College, attributed the change in IR program requirements to the change in economics department course offerings. He noted that POL208 — Introduction to International Relations had also been altered due to a corresponding change by the political science department.

IRSoc pushed for a change in the course last year, and claimed credit for its cancellation in an interview with The Varsity. “It was only… last year that IRSoc could really have a handle on things and push the administration to finally get rid of the course,” Mary Noh, Co-President of IRSoc, said. 

“So I personally think that’s one of IRSoc’s greatest accomplishments… and it’s because we had so [much] of this feedback — years on — that we were able to push that through that year.”

A compendium of complaints

A prevailing complaint was that, in order to be successful in ECO230, IR students felt pressured to use ECOMAN, a private tutoring service for economics courses at U of T. “Ever since I entered the program in 2017, I’ve heard concerns — warnings — from my upper years saying, ‘IR program is great and all, but be careful of ECO230. There’s a specific way to succeed in that class, and you can’t succeed in that class if you take your traditional methods of studying,’ ” Noh said.

ECOMAN group tutoring sessions are priced at $60 per session, while one-on-one tutoring varies in price. Noh noted that the cultural expectation of enrolling with ECOMAN placed students in a financially weaker position at a disadvantage. “[ECO230 had] a financial discrepancy where the people who had these financial resources could do better because they could have access to this tutor, whereas people who couldn’t afford it had to just sit in class and put their grades at risk.” 

ECOMAN services were reportedly desirable in part due to the repository of past ECO230 tests they had amassed. “The course instruction had little correlation with the tests,” Vladislav Gordeev, a fourth-year international relations student, wrote in an email to The Varsity. “There was absolutely no access to past exams or any practice problems which made the exam considerably harder.”

A call for clemency

While ECO230 is no longer a requirement for all current and future students, there remain many IR students who are unhappy with having the course in their academic history. To address this, fourth-year international relations student Foti Vito started a petition earlier in the semester requesting that the faculty implement a retroactive CR/NCR option for ECO230.

Vito is an executive of the ASSU, but clarified in an email to The Varsity that the petition was started in his capacity as a private student, and not as a union leader.

The petition highlighted allegations of poor course organization and instruction, highly negative student feedback in course evaluations, and the perceived necessity of ECOMAN to succeed in the course. Eighty IR students signed the petition, of whom, 40 included statements describing negative experiences with the course. This resulted in the petition ultimately being 27-pages long, single-spaced.

“Like many international relations students, I was relieved to hear that ECO230 was discontinued and replaced with other course offerings,” wrote Vito in an email to The Varsity. “However, I was disappointed that an adequate solution was not found for previous students who continue to experience the highly consequential, negative, and unfair impacts of ECO230 on their mental health, finances, and academic standing. This motivated me to take collective action with my peers.”

A closed case?

On November 25, Vito informed petitioners that Professor Randy Boyagoda — the faculty’s Vice-Dean Undergraduate — had responded to the petition, saying that only individual student appeals submitted through the “established academic appeals process” would be considered.

“The response has been incredibly disappointing to say the least,” Vito wrote. “I view this as complete disregard for student voices and wellbeing.” Yet, while disappointed, he doesn’t believe that this is the ‘end of the road’ for individual students.

“I highly encourage former ECO230 students to pursue the individual appeals process regarding their standing in the course, and the Vice-Dean, Undergraduate is fortunately accepting future requests on an individual basis,” he wrote.

— With files from Nicole Shi