Economics: An elite subject soon only available in elite universities?

Economics: An elite subject soon only available in elite universities?

There are some alarming stories coming out of the UK about the state of academic economics there. It appears that economics is becoming an elite subject for elite UK universities. The relevant literature is listed below but a very accessible source is the London School of Economics and Political Science blog post:

The essence of the findings is that “new universities have retreated from offering economics programs….Moreover, if the recent rate of withdrawal in the new universities continues then economics as a serious subject of study will cease to be an option at the UK’s new universities….Students from disadvantaged backgrounds [are] more likely to attend new universities and thus less likely to have access to economics programs”.

The blog goes on to say that “Between 2003/04 and 2011/12, 16 universities, 14 of which were new universities, withdrew economics program(s) from their prospectuses. Not only that but the numbers of students studying for economics degrees rose even more than the sector as a whole, rising from about 26,000 to 39,000 (an increase of 49%) over the same period. So it would be wholly wrong to infer from these findings that economics has become less popular with prospective students: nothing could be further from the truth”.

The authors ask “Why have so many of the new universities retreated from economics? It is well known that new universities tend to have … more vocational subjects. Thus Business Studies is more common in the new than the old universities … and new universities typically have lower entry requirements than old universities. .. [Also] The role of research evaluation exercises cannot be ignored. … Universities that do well in the exercises receive funding to do more research and those that do badly receive little or no funding … The result is that over time research becomes more and more concentrated in fewer universities, all of them old universities. The number of universities submitting to the economics research assessment exercise fell steadily from 60 in 1992 to 35 in 2008, with the new universities falling from 12 to 3”.

There are clear equity implications: ”students from less privileged backgrounds are much more likely to attend new universities [and hence excluded] from this important body of knowledge …  Skewing access to the study of economics in this way has the potential to harm not just the career prospects of the socially disadvantaged but also impoverishing the wider debate on economic issues at the level of the nation”.

A recent article (Lodewijks & Stokes 2014) finds striking similarities with the British experience in Australia. Many post-Dawkins universities, and even some established before then, are struggling to maintain viable economics programs. Many departments have been closed, merged or relocated, their staff made redundant while economics degrees and majors have been eliminated. Academic economics appears to be increasingly concentrated in Group of Eight universities. As in the UK, the research assessment exercises, in Australia called the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) audits organized by the Australian Research Council, appear to have played a similar role.

One of the interesting aspects of this episode in both countries is the disconnect between those in the elite and those in the lesser institutions. Some academics in the older, established ‘sandstone’ universities appear oblivious (or disinterested?) to the plight of their fellow academics in the lesser ranked universities.  For those facing redundancy it is a life and death struggle – with considerable emotional distress – to keep economics programs on the books.

The longer-term public policy implications may be dire. The UK authors mention an old article by George Stigler from 1970 that argued that an understanding of economics can not only improve personal decision making throughout life but also has a pivotal role to play in a well-functioning democracy by allowing electorates to contribute more fully to debates on the major economic issues of the day. This may now be in jeopardy. Economics may or may not be a “superior” discipline (Fourcade, Ollion & Algan 2014) but its impact will be limited if its principles are not diffused widely.



Fourcade, M., Ollion, E., and Algan, Y. (2014). The Superiority of Economists. MaxPo Discussion Paper, (14/3).

James Johnston and Alan Reeves (2014) “Economics is becoming an elite subject for elite UK universities” London School of Economics and Political Science Blog, 11th November:

James Johnston, Alan Reeves and Steven Talbot (2014) “Has economics become an elite subject for elite UK universities?, Oxford Review of Education, 40:5, 590-609.

John Lodewijks and Tony Stokes (2014) “Is academic economics withering in Australia?” Agenda – A Journal of Policy Analysis and Reform, Vol.21 No.1 pp.69-88.

Steve Talbot, Alan Reeves and James Johnston (2013) “Access to the system as a whole does not mean access to the whole system: The case of economics in Scottish higher education” Scottish Affairs, no. 83, spring pp. 42-70.

Steve Talbot, Alan Reeves and James Johnston (2014) “Observations on the re-emergence of a binary system in UK universities for economics degree programmes”, Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education, 18:1, 14-19.