Kingston University Economics Department have been hiring. And it made me wonder about the business model of their department. The hiring is prompted by the recruitment of the author of international bestseller ‘Debunking Economics’ by Steve Keen. The ads made a clear pitch for someone who is doing research in and is inclined towards heterodox economics.
This is a brave move. Because in the short-term, it is going to mean less funding for research. For two reasons. First, if Kingston University gets any ESRC [Economics and Social Research Council] money for this purpose at all, they will get less of it at the next Research Excellence Framework exercise in 2021. As this is largely determined by the success of academics at publishing. And recruiting heterodox economists like Steve and others like him will mean fewer publications in top ranked journals. As Steve accepts, for good or ill, these journals don’t currently publish heterodox papers, as Steve would define them. Their editors and referees would, I guess, view what he and his peers do as, at best, provocative question-posing, but a waste of time as far as substantive research goes.
Second, I’ll forecast that the tilt towards heterodox staff will mean less money raised through direct research grants (eg through the ESRC ). This money will follow those who have track-records in delivering what the profession (rightly or wrongly) currently deems to be top ranked journals. It’s possible that the department’s submission to (Kingston’s submission to) the REF will be looked at differently. ESRC exercise judgement in ‘marking’ publications of the academic team in an institution. And it’s possible that there is money out there earmarked for those wishing to take a tilt at the econ mainstream. But in conversation over Twitter, Steve seemed to accept these forecasts of mine as I put them to him.
So, less money from these sources for research ought to mean less time for research, right? Wrong, seemingly. Steve thought there would be ‘more’ time. This is pretty puzzling. Less money from these two funding sources for research time means more dependence on money brought in through fee income by student numbers. Steve described that Kingston’s National Student Survey scores were rising, and that their positioning as a heterodox department would help those rankings rise even more. But how will this free up more time per academic staff member for research? If the NSS improvements drive up student numbers and fees stay the same, then unless the academic staff/student-contact-hour ratio falls, there will be no more time for research. Perhaps they are counting on increasing fees to pay for extra academic staff amongst which to divide their existing teaching load.
Steve Keen also mentioned, plausibly, that they were hoping to pick up students disaffected with the hegemony of (what he calls) ‘mainstream’ economics in the curriculum offered by other departments. This argument has something going for it, because you can see that Manchester’s ‘Post Crash Economics Society’ has made quite some headway publicising its discontent with Manchester’s offering.
But how many students are there in this category who will go to Kingston? Somewhat depressingly, I’ve always found most students in my subject that I’ve encountered, pretty much ever since I did my own undergraduate degree back in the late 1980s, as unswervingly focused on their ‘bottom line’. Economics is studied by most as a route into government, academia, finance, management consulting. And rightly or wrongly, I forecast that the vast majority will calculate that their prospects of breaking into these fields are much better if they get good degrees at departments that, as Steve would see it, ‘conform to the status quo’. One response to this was that in fact the finance profession were chomping at the bit for more heterodox economists to hire. Despite the intervention of a couple of offensive cyberhets [adapting cybernat terminology here], and an interesting survey of attitudes of hirers by the CFA, I personally doubt that there are enough radical hirers out there to offer a home to Kingston’s students. Although I have to confess it’s based on the entirely unscientific approach of wondering what anyone I have ever met in finance or Government would actually say about this.
Anyway, capturing disaffected students won’t solve the research problem either, unless by giving them something different they can be satisfied with lower staff/student ratios. And less time for research would presumably mean…. less contact with the frontier of heterodox economics. [Although you’ll guess that I would think this not such a bad thing].
Steve conceded that KU were taking a risk. But if no-one ever tried to challenge the status-quo, it would never change. After all, the Cowles-Commission lot once ruled academia as well as policymaking institutions, and the microfoundations and VAR pioneers were once isolated and considered the fruitcakes.
Although I think Steve’s approach to economics is completely misguided, you have to admire the nobility of this gambit by him and his department. The money foregone by them in the meantime is a considerable externality to the rest of the discipline. Perhaps even all disciplines. Subsidised, test challenges like this help ward off capture by vested academic-political interests and keep the playing field leveller, so ideas can fight it out on the right terms.