Why is the field of economics still so elitist?

11th May, 2023

There is no shortage of white men in economics. That is clear enough from a glance down the very male, very white list of winners of the discipline’s Nobel memorial prize. There are a few exceptions: the black Caribbean-born scholar Sir Arthur Lewis won in 1979; the first woman to win, Elinor Ostrom, did not do so until 2009, astonishingly late. Other non-white, non-male winners are few and far between.

Even now, away from the pinnacle of the profession, things are scarcely more encouraging. Academic economics still appears to be an unattractive environment for women. I’ve written before about the fact that while many stereotypically male-studied subjects such as science and mathematics now have large numbers of female students, economics has not managed to achieve the same progress. Women make up 56 per cent of the UK-domiciled undergraduate population, but just 32 per cent of economics undergraduates are women. That proportion has fallen slightly, not risen, in recent years.

There is more to diversity than race and gender. Consider social class. Class is not something that has been explored much by those analysing the economics profession. This is partly because it can feel somewhat ineffable and partly because what data exists is not freely available to most researchers. However, a recent report by the Royal Economic Society breaks new ground on this question. (Full disclosure: I used to serve on the RES Council, the group which oversees the society’s activities.) The report explores the socio-economic background of UK-domiciled students studying economics as undergraduates, and its conclusions are disturbing. Put simply, most of the people who are under-represented in the undergraduate population as a whole are even more under-represented in economics courses.

And while there are various ways to measure social class, however the data is sliced, the same basic pattern shows up: economics students are disproportionately from more favoured socio-economic backgrounds. Consider, for example, students from areas that don’t produce many students: 12.2 per cent of UK-domiciled undergraduates come from these areas, but just 5.2 per cent of students studying economics. About 8 per cent of UK-domiciled students went to private school, but nearly 20 per cent of economics students did. Some 44 per cent of students have a parent who went to university, but 55 per cent of economics students do. The children of managerial or professional parents are particularly over-represented in economics courses.

What about ethnicity? “Ethnic representation in economics is actually not too bad,” says Stefania Paredes Fuentes, the report’s lead author. Indeed, students of Asian and black African ethnicity are better represented in economics courses than other degree courses and relative to their weight in the British population as a whole. But the broader picture is not encouraging. While any young person is more likely to attend university if they are from a richer family with a history of higher education, that is particularly true of those choosing to study economics. Economics students from disadvantaged backgrounds are rare.

Why is this? The explanation is largely practical: economics tends to be taught by more venerable, selective universities. It is often not taught at all in newer ones. Very few economics courses are taught part-time. Economics courses are disproportionately taught in universities in or near London. Students from far-flung regions hoping to study economics at a local university will have few options. In short, all the factors that make university education hard to access for some people apply in economics with extra force.

“Economics can be considered an elitist discipline,” the RES report begins. That is not intended as a compliment, but some economists might nod in approval. It’s nice to feel part of an exclusive club, after all. But this is a mistake. Not every student can be John Maynard Keynes; not every university can be Cambridge. If we accept that there’s a role for less exacting universities, then there is nothing about economics that makes it too good for such places.

Economics could do more to appeal to everyone, and the profession is engaged in some soul-searching both about its culture and about its content. The culture of academic economics needs to be more inclusive; the content of economics courses has (rightly) been shifting away from abstraction towards real-world problems, which prospective students care about.

This is not just a problem for economics alone. The overall picture that emerges from the RES report is one of shameful educational inequality. If UK students from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t make it to university, and particularly don’t make it to the best universities, then we are all diminished as a result. The disparities in economics courses simply exemplify the broader problem in its most concentrated form.

But there is a double tragedy that it is economics, rather than some other subject, which so starkly displays educational inequalities. First, economics students tend to get well-paid jobs. “The economics discipline is great at increasing social mobility,” says Paredes Fuentes. It is a scandal that so many poorer young people are missing that opportunity.

Secondly, economists carry a great deal of weight in policymaking. If young people from more marginalised upbringings were better represented in economics, they would also be better represented in the corridors of power. But they are not. And you don’t need a degree in economics to understand the consequences of that.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 14 April 2023.

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