The UK Research Assessment Exercise and the narrowing of UK economics

“The UK Research Assessment Exercise and the narrowing of UK economics,” by Frederic S. Lee; Xuan Pham; Gyun Gu. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 2013 37: 693-717

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Press Release, July 8, 2013

New paper warns that the Research Assessment Exercise is causing a homogenisation of UK economics

05 July 2013 Oxford University Press (OUP)

  • Under embargo until 07 July 2013 23:01 GMT


UK economics is becoming increasingly homogenised, and runs the risk of becoming “a purely quaint academic subject with no connection to the real world,” according to the authors of a new paper published in the Cambridge Journal of Economics today (Monday 8 July). Crucially, this homogenisation may mean that significant economic events that don’t conform to mainstream economic ideas may be missed.

Frederic S. Lee, Xuan Pham, and Gyun Gu examined how economics is researched and taught in English universities alongside the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and forthcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF) in 2014, which assess the amount of quality research (QR) generated by academics. They chose to focus on only English universities, rather than those in the rest of the UK because 80% of economics departments are in England, and therefore dominate UK economics. They say that the impact of the UK RAEs on economics is that universities are increasingly marginalising heterodox, or non-mainstream, economics (and by extension, economists) in their pursuit of high RAE scores and therefore more chance of research funding.

In their paper, ‘The UK Research Assessment Exercise and the narrowing of UK economics’, Professor Lee and colleagues developed an empirically grounded model of UK economics that, in the context of the RAE and local department decision making, shows there are three major on-going trends in the discipline:

  • the ostracising of heterodox economics – and economists
  • the concentration and homogenisation of UK economic research
  • the dominance of UK economics by a few elite and near-elite departments

They write: “The interactive process between research-publishing and hiring resulted in department staff compositional change over the past two decades being positively wilfully/casually correlated with the concentration of scholarly work in the core research areas and with the increase in Diamond List* journal submissions and negatively causally correlated with the decline of non-mainstream research areas and with heterodox submissions to the economics RAE panel.”

Further, they argue that due to the increased emphasis on international excellence when it comes to the RAE and the allocation of funding, university departments that are not considered elite, or near-elite, are losing out. Professor Lee says, “Over the past two decades, national excellence in research quality has gone from being quite important in terms of funding to being completely unimportant, while international excellence is now the only criterion relevant for research funding. This, in turn, has ensured that QR funding is becoming increasingly concentrated in and among fewer economics departments.

“Moreover, the composition of the universities submitting to the RAE economics panels has changed significantly in favour of departments from the ‘old universities’.”

The authors found that since the 1992 RAE the participation of the new universities in economics declined by 75%, and its allocation of QR funding declined “to virtually nothing”. Professor Lee argues that this restricts the upward migration of departments, with the majority of QR funding going to “perhaps about 13 elite and near-elite departments. The number of research rated economics departments has declined from 46 to 28 since 1996.

“The elite and near-elite departments have turned the assessment exercises into a self-promotion activity where those ‘other’ lower class departments are marginalised.”

As these departments continue to hire mainstream economists who publish and teach in a way that conforms to the idea of “good economics”, heterodox economists are increasingly marginalised, according to Professor Lee: “Mainstream economists hold quite punitive attitudes towards heterodox economists and their ideas – both are so unacceptable that they should not be part of just economics but all of academia. Mainstream economists do not believe that students should be introduced to heterodox economic ideas, but rather should only be taught their theory.

“The issue is not who is right or wrong with regards to economic theory; it is about the right to be wrong or possibly wrong without fear of punishment. The single mind-set of economists in many UK departments makes it more likely that significant economic events that do not conform to that mind-set will be missed – such as the 2008 financial crisis. Not only can Queen Elizabeth II ask why economists did not see it coming, so can everyone else.”

* The Diamond List is a list of 27 core economics journals drawn up by A. Diamond in 1989.

See also, REF ‘risks narrowing economics’, Times Higher Education, July 10: