The Rise of Elitism in Economics

While the number of students studying economics in the UK has risen in recent years, this increase has been concentrated disproportionately in ‘old’ (i.e. pre-1992) institutions. James Johnston and Alan Reeves1 draw a detailed picture and speculate on whether this concentration of the discipline in more expensive, elite, institutions threatens to make economics a subject for the better off.

The higher education (HE) system of the UK, like those of many other countries, has undergone major changes in the last two decades: the removal of the binary divide, the continued ‘massification’ of the HE system, changes in how the burden of funding universities is shared between users and the state, programme proliferation, increases in internationalisation and so on. One aspect of all this change that has attracted increased attention is how different disciplines have fared in the market for undergraduate programmes. Have certain subjects been shunned while others have grown in popularity? Some subjects would appear to have performed better than others. Much has been said about the dearth of students studying for many STEM degrees, partly as a result of their alleged importance to the economic health of the nation. There is some evidence that this trend may be beginning to change. The so-called ‘Brian Cox effect’ has seen the demand for physics and related programmes rise thanks to the charismatic media performances of the Manchester University physicist. Other subjects such as modern languages have also struggled to find a niche. As economists it is natural to consider the fate of undergraduate economics programmes.

More economics students...
Though it is important to note that it is only one part of the economics education that takes place in schools, colleges and universities, the health of the undergraduate economics degree is likely to be a good indicator of the health of the subject. Smith (2013) provides a mixed assessment of the health of the economics bachelor’s degree in the UK’s universities. Evidence is presented to show that the proportion of total university applications accounted for by applications to economics undergraduate programmes rose slightly between 2006 and 2012. However, the picture between 2009 and 2012 was less impressive, with the earlier increase in applications petering out at a time when applications more generally continued to grow. He also puts forward some tentative explanations of the increase in student numbers between 2006 and 2012. On the demand side of the market for university programmes it is suggested that widely-read publications such as The Complete University Guide that highlight the relatively high earnings of economics graduates may have bolstered the demand for economics programmes. Of course, the validity of this human capital type explanation of programme selection turns on potential students being aware of and acting on this sort of information. On the supply side data are presented to show that the numbers of pre-university students studying subjects such as Economics and Mathematics at A-level has grown. The resultant increase in the numbers of students with the skills required to study economics at university level, it is argued, might have boosted the numbers of applications and acceptances. Whether this apparent shift in programme choices is the result of a change in programme preferences or price factors and whether it is permanent or temporary are interesting but unresolved questions.

Whether the changes in the HE environment have combined to reduce access to the study of economics at degree level is considered in a study by Johnston, Reeves and Talbot (2014). The study reveals that the number of students studying for a Bachelor’s degree in economics rose from 26, 343 in 2003/04 to 38,894 in 2011/12. Not only have the numbers studying for economics undergraduate degrees increased in absolute terms but they have grown more quickly than total student numbers.

Overall the subject would appear to be more than holding its own in the increasingly competitive market for undergraduate university programmes. However, closer investigation of the data reveals some interesting differences in the experiences of different universities and more importantly different sorts of universities. It seems that while the total numbers of students setting out on Bachelor’s degrees in economics increased markedly between 2003 and 2012, the growth in student numbers was not evenly distributed across the higher education system. The study uncovers what appears to be a fracturing of the provision of economics undergraduate degrees, with some universities (mainly ‘new’ i.e. post-1992 universities) effectively withdrawing from the subject while others (mainly ‘old’ i.e. pre-1992) universities have expanded their provision. The figure below illustrates how undergraduate economics education has come to be more concentrated in the pre-1992 institutions.

...but in fewer institutions
The study also finds that over the period 2003/04-2011/12 sixteen UK universities, fourteen of which were post-1992 universities, withdrew at least one of their economics undergraduate programmes in the most frequently offered titles - Economics, Business Economics and Financial Economics. Just as the withdrawers were concentrated in the new university part of the UK’s HE system, the geographical distribution of withdrawers was also far from even. It appears that economics titles have largely been removed from the prospectuses of new universities in Scotland and the North of England. It would appear that the best predictor of whether a university does or does not offer an economics degree is whether it became a university before or after 1992. Table 1 gives a list of new universities that have either retained or withdrew economics programmes over the decade up to 2011/12. Retainers, a dwindling number, are listed in the first column, and the withdrawers are in columns 2-4. There are two pre-1992 universities in there as withdrawers (Liverpool and Salford) but they are unusual because of the very fact that they are old universities that have by and large retained economics provision. The large number of withdrawers in such a short space of time is a worrying feature of changing provision.

It is also emerges from the study that three quarters of the new universities in the UK did not offer an economics title in 2011/12. Though pre-1992 universities have come to dominate the market for economics Bachelor’s degree, it is important to say that there are subtleties in the changes that have taken place and that the findings of this study are not all bad news for economics programmes in new universities. For example, it appears that even though many new universities have all but withdrawn from offering economics programmes, the total number of students enrolling on economics undergraduate degrees in new universities in 2011/12 was nonetheless slightly up on the figure for 2003/04. However, on the downside, it is clear that the share of economics undergraduate students going to new universities has fallen dramatically as has the number of new universities offering undergraduate programmes. This observation is consistent with the re-emergence of the binary divide in which old universities on the one hand concentrate on education per se and on subjects that help students better understand the world about them (e.g. economics) while on the other hand new universities deliver vocational programmes and training closely related to careers (e.g. business studies). One possible driver of this apparent splintering of provision is that economics is not perceived as a vocational subject by the sorts of students who typically apply to new universities.

Economics and social class
Had these programme closures resulted from a decline in the popularity of the subject as a whole they would probably have been of greater concern to the economics community. However, if fewer, probably higher quality, institutions are able to meet the needs of a larger market for undergraduate economics education then this may point to improvements in allocative and productive efficiency, something to which most economists are unlikely to object. If this also means that some less popular intra-marginal economics programmes have become extra marginal and that a few students and economists have had to rethink their plans then that is simply the price that has to be paid for a more efficient organisation of provision. Rather than tying up resources in programmes with low student numbers resources are released to be used by higher quality and more efficient market participants. The small numbers of students that might have applied to the programmes that have been withdrawn had they remained on offer can now apply to attend alternative institutions, possibly including new universities where the academic and monetary price of entry may be similar or at least not much higher than those they would have faced. An argument against this is that, especially in Scotland, students often prefer to live at home while attending university and they do not want travel that far to university. Students who for example live in the Central Belt who go to Aberdeen University have to find accommodation in or around Aberdeen rather than face a 200 mile round trip every day. Thus with the lack of provision in the new universities in Scotland, Scottish students wanting to study economics and not having the top grades necessary to get into an old university find themselves unable to study economics. We do not have any data on what they actually do but one possibility is that they choose a related programme in business at a new or old university where the entry requirements are not as tough as for economics (Talbot, Johnston and Reeves 2013).

If economics has become an elite subject studied mainly by those fortunate enough to attend elite universities, and to the extent that access to universities is stratified along the social class margin, then it seems reasonable to conclude that the higher-level knowledge of economics picked up by studying for an economics undergraduate degree will not be spread evenly across the different social classes that make up the population. It is important to make it clear that there is no suggestion that economics departments in elite universities are in any way discriminating against applicants from lower socio-economic groups but there are good reasons to believe that these students are less likely to be able to meet the academic and financial price of attending a highly-ranked institution. While initiatives to regulate admissions and to widen access to elite departments for students from previously under-represented sections of society will no doubt help alleviate the problem, they are unlikely to be a panacea and a social class- based access gap may develop and grow. Whether this translates into differences in the policy area will depend on the extent to which policy preferences are a function of background.

There are three other features of the changing UK HE landscape that deserve mention: gender imbalance, league tables and research assessment exercises. All of these issues have elitist connotations. Tonin and Wahba (2014) in their assessment of the significance of the striking gender imbalance in the recruitment of students to economics bachelor’s programmes in the UK’s universities highlight the possibility that through its impact on post-graduation earnings the relatively low numbers of women studying economics at the undergraduate level may have made the UK’s male-female wage gap larger and more persistent than would otherwise have been the case. Not only that but it is also suggested that the paucity of female enrolments coupled with differences in male-female preferences over economic policy might lead to the policy formulation that is unrepresentative of society as a whole. An analogy can be drawn between this line of argument and the changing provision of economics degrees in the UK’s higher education sector. Existing earnings differences between graduates from different social classes may be exacerbated if access to disciplines that are associated with higher earnings – such as economics - has become more restricted: attempts to raise social mobility more generally may also suffer. Similarly, if there are differences between the policy preferences of people from different social classes, then the increased dominance in the serious study of economics of those who are able to study at the traditional universities may introduce yet another element of bias into economic policy debates. Mumford (2014) puts down a lot of the explanation for lack of females in undergraduate economics degrees to the relatively small number studying economics at secondary school. For unknown reasons girls don’t study economics at school, perhaps it is just not offered or girls don’t want to be economists. If part of the reason for the withdrawal of so many economics programmes from the UK’s new universities is a lack of demand on the part of students from lower socio-economic groups, then why is it that students from disadvantaged backgrounds decide to study business studies rather than economics?

Cribb and Gewirtz (2012) draw attention to the rise of university managers who are concerned with ‘gloss and spin’, ‘impression management’ and how they are perceived by others. Introduced by media organisations ostensibly to provide interested parties with higher quality information on which to make choices, the annual round of league tables is now subject to close attention. Universities not doing too well in the latest round of tables can be under intense pressure to raise their ranking. In addition to informing people, these tables will also have a direct impact on the behaviour of universities, so that programmes where entrance requirements may have been reduced in an effort to boost recruitment, perhaps in response to a fall in student demand, may be more likely to be closed since entry scores are one of the factors used to determine league position. Use of the academic price mechanism (offer grades) to fill unpopular programmes now carries a potential cost to the institution as lower entry scores, ceteris paribus, will mean a lower league position This is turn may make it more difficult for such institutions to attract well-qualified applicants.

It is difficult to overstate the impact of the Research Assessment Exercises on UK universities. Undoubtedly they have been among the most significant changes in recent decades. In a scathing assessment of their impact, Willmott (2003, 132) claims that they ‘contributed to, and provided legitimacy for, a combination of work intensification, casualisation, tenure abolition and salary depletion’. Lee, Pham and Gu (2013) are similarly unimpressed showing that the increasingly important status and financial consequences of national research evaluation exercises may have led universities to amend recruitment practices and to put pressure on non-mainstream academics to switch research direction. Essentially the several rounds of research assessment exercises since 1992 have whittled down the number of universities doing highly-rated economics research to an elite group of old universities, new universities not getting a look-in where research funding is concerned. When deciding on the costs and benefits of a programme, managers are more likely to retain a programme if the academics involved in its delivery are highly-rated researchers. The financial benefits flowing from a highly-rated research submission from a large group of researchers coupled with the prestige from any positive impact on its league table ranking may well be enough in management’s eyes to compensate for a dearth of well-qualified students and the financial consequences this entails. The research evaluation exercises and the increased prominence given to league tables may have had an impact on the decision to retain or withdraw economics programmes from universities prospectuses.


1.University of Western Scotland. The authors are grateful to the HEA for a small grant to assist with their research.


Cribb, A and Gewirtz, S (2012) ‘The hollowed-out university? A critical analysis of changing institutional and academic norms in UK higher education’. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 1-13.

Johnston, J, Reeves, A and Talbot, S (2014) ‘Has economics become an elite subject for elite universities’? Oxford Review of Education. 40 (5), 590-609.

Lee, F., Pham, X. and Gu, G. (2013) ‘The UK Research Assessment Exercise and the narrowing of UK economics’. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 37 (4), 693-717.

Mumford, K (2014) ‘More on the gender gap in economics enrolment’. Royal Economic Society Newsletter, Issue 167, October.

Smith, P (2013) ‘Trends in student numbers in economics in the UK’. Royal Economic Society Newsletter, Issue 163, October.

Talbot, S, Reeves, A and Johnston, J (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, 83, Spring.

Tonin, M and Wahba, J (2014) ‘The gender gap in economics enrolment: where does it arise?’ Royal Economic Society Newsletter, Issue 167, October.

Willmott, H (2003) ‘Commercialising higher education in the UK: the state, industry and peer review’. Studies in Higher Education, 28 (2), 129-141.

From Issue no. 169. April 2015, pp.9-12

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