In the 1970s, the University of Manchester’s economics department housed many ways of thinking. There were econometricians and neoclassical micro and macroeconomists, but also post-Keynesians, feminists and others.
By the time I arrived in Manchester as an undergraduate in 2011, out of a department of more than 50 academics, only a few did research outside the mainstream. One was on a short-term, teaching-only contract that was not renewed. Another taught history of economic thought. When he fell ill, nobody was willing or able to teach the course, so it was cancelled for my year.
In the interim, says Diane Elson, a pioneer in feminist economics now at the University of Essex, there developed an “implicit agreement” that it would be best for everyone if non-mainstream economists moved on. Elson has served on the UN Committee for Development Policy, and now chairs the UK’s Women’s Budget Group, which analyses the gender implications of economic policy.
Another former member of Manchester’s economics department says he was told he would “wither on the vine” if he stayed.
Has neoclassical economics, then, shown that it is the single right way to understand the economy? Not if the past decade of crisis is any guide. In fact, the homogenisation of Manchester’s economics department has been driven by successive rounds of research evaluation.
Before the Research Assessment Exercise, reports in the university’s archives focused on the pressures of increasing student numbers and savings targets. Post-RAE, one report reads: “1996 was dominated by the RAE; the preparation, the waiting and the result, which was a 4 [out of 5]...sights have to be set higher for the next round.”
A priori, there’s no reason why such a goal should trigger an intellectual narrowing. But the early RAE panels—appointed by the Royal Economic Society—were overwhelmingly comprised of established neoclassicists with little knowledge of other traditions. In effect, the RAE allowed a small group of mainstream economists to decide—in private—how to define economics.
Once the cycle began, university management had to reshape their economics departments to maintain funding and prestige. Institutions began to use journal ranking lists, none of which the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) endorses, to inform their research strategy and hiring.
Neoclassical journals dominate these lists: Keele University’s influential list, for example, ranks no non-mainstream journals as 4* and only a few as 3*. As early as 1994 the University of Manchester was advertising in The Guardian for “mainstream economists” who could boost their research profile.
As economists learn that success comes from a certain type of paper in a top mainstream journal, each assessment becomes more skewed than the last. In REF 2014, many assessors were editors of major neoclassical journals and none were recognised non-mainstream economists.
In that assessment, 27.7 per cent of the research submitted to the economics sub-panel was rated as 4*, and 48.9 per cent as 3*. These were the highest scores in Panel C which, broadly, covers the social sciences.
One possibility is that economists are smarter than their colleagues in neighbouring disciplines. Another, I would argue more convincing, interpretation is that the “extreme selectivity” of submissions, to quote the economics sub-panel’s report, shows that universities have a particularly clear idea of what constitutes ‘excellent’ research in economics.
As James Johnston and Alan Reeves point out, fewer universities are submitting to the economics sub-panel with each assessment. Those that do are highly selective, reducing numbers of staff and outputs submitted still further.
Many economists with research interests outside neoclassical economics have moved into business schools; others, including Elson, are in sociology departments. In REF 2014, 1,361 outputs submitted to the business unit of assessment were cross-referred to the economics subpanel, as the business panel felt it lacked the expertise to assess them. This amounts to over a third of submissions to the economics unit of assessment. In 15 universities, 10 or more outputs took this route, suggesting the presence of whole shadow economics departments.
Exiling economists to other departments narrows the boundaries of what is considered to be credible economics, damaging our ability to address economic and social challenges. It also increases the distance between outsiders and insiders, allowing the mainstream to create an increasingly stagnant intellectual environment.
Academic freedom is meant to allow for new viewpoints and the testing of received wisdom. In economics, this has become incompatible with success in the REF. HEFCE has a duty to reform the system before REF 2021."
Joe Earle is coauthor of Econocracy: The perils of leaving economics to the experts (Manchester University Press) and a trustee of the Rethinking Economics network.
Source: Research Professional