Master of Political Economy graduate Alison Pennington

Pioneering Change in Political Economy

27 June 2023
Master of Political Economy graduate shares her inspiring career journey
Driven by the search for universal frameworks of analysis, and effective methods for achieving social justice, Alison Pennington has devoted her career to challenging prevailing economic narratives and advocating for a fairer future.

Graduating in 2015 with a Master of Political Economy, Alison Pennington embarked on a transformative journey of interpreting and translating the dynamics of power, policy and economics.

We recently caught up with Alison to hear her valuable insights into her motivations, experiences, and the transformative impact her education has had on her professional trajectory.

What inspired you to pursue a Master of Political Economy at the University of Sydney?

"The social relations of production, distribution and power were always of interest to me. I’d just never had the opportunity to properly study them. I undertook my Bachelor’s degree as the postmodern turn was sweeping the social sciences, displacing class and economic inequality in favour of identities, ‘places’ and ‘spaces’, which was part of what drove me into the warm embrace of economics. Subjectivity didn’t resonate like objectivity. It felt like a side-act, and I yearned for universal analytical frameworks to best understand the world, for the purpose of making it better. I was actually going to start an electrical apprenticeship after my degree in Adelaide, until I started scanning postgraduate offerings across Australia."

I remember the day I stumbled across the Department of Political Economy’s website; it’s teaching staff, their publications and its remarkable history. It was a total revelation. I knew barely anything about formal economics but knew I had to. I became obsessed with getting into that intellectual environment as quick as I could.
Alison Pennington, Master of Political Economy graduate

Alison’s university experience in three words

"Liberating. Compulsive. Serious."

What was the biggest lesson you learned during your time at university?

"Seek out the thinkers in universities whose work inspires you. Never chase prestige or branding on your qualification."

Could you outline your career trajectory since graduating?

"I landed my first full-time, permanent job with the Commonwealth Department of Finance in Canberra. There I worked advising on foreign affairs and trade proposals in Budget, as well as a stint in grants and procurement policy. Determined to help rebuild a stumbling public service, I went on as National Organiser with the Community and Public Sector Union, supporting members to build workplace power across several APS agencies. There I gained clear insights into the challenges facing unions, as important countervailing institutions to rising inequality, and sought advocacy at a higher policy level. I joined the progressive think-tank, the Centre for Future Work with the Australia Institute as the Senior Economist, where I worked for four years across Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne."

"As far as research, policy and media goes, this job was the Swiss-army knife. I researched and published reports, academic articles, and media op-eds; did public presentations, media interviews and testimonies to government; and helped deliver economics education to workers. After departing the Institute, I wrote and published my book Gen F’d? How Young Australians Can Reclaim their Uncertain Futures with Hardie Grant Books. It was released in March this year (2023). I am now working as an advisor to the federal government."

Alison Pennington

Alison Pennington, Master of Political Economy graduate and author of 'Gen F’d? How Young Australians Can Reclaim their Uncertain Futures'

Words of wisdom: advice for future political economists

"The study of how we produce the goods and services we need to support and progress human lives, and of power (who gets what and why) is critical to understanding the world around us. For those new to economics who have a feeling it’s important, it’s worth jumping in the deep end. "

Political economy offers a variety of subjects like the history of economic thought, inequality, trade, financialisation, and more. Political economy also avoids the insularity that besets a lot of academia, embracing plurality and critical conversations across disciplines. It gives you the tools to better understand the world, and intervene more effectively into the world of ideas. It’s the best education you’ll get!
Alison Pennington, Master of Political Economy graduate

Childhood dreams

"I never had a childhood ambition for any particular job. I grew up in a working-class family where finances weren’t always stable. My brothers and I were expected to get jobs at 15 and contribute to the family. Once we’d finished education, the accepted goal was to get a ‘good job’ - one with secure pay and dignity. But I was also raised in an environment where hard work wasn’t specific to a job for a boss. Making music, practicing collectivism, reading books and social time were all valued."

"As a kid I was very curious about people, their motivations, and why they struggled in life, and was driven by a search for answers and solutions. I gathered knowledge, analytical frameworks, and a way of making sense of it all across many spaces in my life. But getting to university was a big deal where I’d felt like I’d really ‘made it’. It was a portal to more ideas, and I could engage with them in a structured tangible way. It was both terrifying and exhilarating! I could never have imagined that my simple ambitions for a decent job, and appetite for meaningful, impactful work would come together like they have for me now. I am lucky to be able to track my motivations and principles as a young person, to here today. And lived to tell the tale!"

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