Five in five: Jeff Borland

By Amy Huynh

An avid footy fan with 35 years teaching behind him, Professor Jeff Borland talks about how his love of economics began, and his role in a research project investigating the impact of an innovative program to improve outcomes for children from highly disadvantaged backgrounds.

How did your interest in economics start, and how has it evolved over time?

Growing up, I was always interested in politics, and decided I should also study economics because it seemed to be an important part of what happened in politics. I soon found that I liked economics even better, and decided to pursue it in my undergraduate degree.

Originally, I planned on becoming an economics journalist, so I came to the University of Melbourne to do an Arts degree, with joint honours in economics and history. I was the first in my family to go to university, and it was like visiting a whole new world. Over the summer before starting Honours, I went to the Australian National University on what was called a vacation scholarship, where I had fantastic supervisors who encouraged me to go to the US to pursue postgraduate study. When I was tutoring at the University of Melbourne before leaving to do my PhD, I discovered I loved teaching.  Then I enjoyed doing research as part of the PhD, so I decided to become an academic.

Jeff Borland

What is your philosophy when it comes to teaching economics?

Over my 35 years of teaching, I’ve developed a pretty simple core philosophy: if you're going to teach economics, you need to teach it to people in a way so they can actually use it. I think there are two parts to learning economics: first, the concepts and the theories; and second, the most vital part, learning how to apply those concepts and theories to real scenarios. I try to consciously embed the idea that economics is a toolbox of methods in all the subjects I teach. An example I used at the start of Introductory Microeconomics was the demand/supply model. The first step is to learn the model –  the concepts of demand, supply and equilibrium. The second step is to be able to apply the model.  For example, if you read an article that describes how the world supply of wheat has decreased and the world price has increased, you should be able to use the demand/supply model to intuitively explain how the changes in supply and price are related.

Could you tell us about your work on the Early Years Education Program?

The Early Years Education Program (EYEP) caters to children from highly disadvantaged backgrounds, who are at risk of abuse and neglect. It’s now well known that children who experience prolonged trauma in their early years are likely to have worse labour market outcomes and lower levels of well-being and health throughout their lives. The EYEP is an attempt to create a program that can stop these children falling behind. My colleague Yi-Ping Tseng and I have been working for the last eight years on the design of a research trial of EYEP, and are now statistically analysing the impact of the program on these children and whether it improves their development. I love doing research that is so directly related to public policy.

What’s something about you people might not know?

I love AFL! I’m a huge St Kilda fan. I went to a lot of matches growing up, and while I was at university I started umpiring in the junior squad for what was called the VFL (Victorian Football League) back then.

It was a fantastic experience to have to work hard to improve my umpiring skills, build resilience and learn how to deal with some difficult situations. In country leagues after the home-team had lost, you’d often spend several hours waiting to get picked up to go back to Melbourne – and in that time  you’d have everyone highlighting your bad decisions which ‘cost’ them the match. I umpired for five years in the VFL and country leagues around Victoria before going to graduate school in the US.

Umpiring was life-forming in a couple of ways. The people that I met are still my best friends today – they are people who I wouldn’t have met or had anything to do with except for this connection.

What is the best advice you would give to your students?

Being at university is a fantastic time of life, when you've got this time to focus on studying and doing other related activities – so really make the most of the opportunities the University gives you.

Don't sit at home all the time downloading your lectures off the Learning Management System (LMS). Come into the campus, participate in what's going on. Take advantage of all the experiences.

I would also really encourage people to try and find a passion in their studies. To me, the thing that makes your time here at University most enjoyable is if you find something that you really enjoy doing and you think is worthwhile. That's going to make you feel like you’ve got the most out of your time.