Quality of Irish Economics Departments: it’s neither Size nor Youth that counts

This post was written by Michael Moore

Look at http://www.rae.ac.uk/results/qualityProfile.aspx?id=34&type=uoa

These are the economics results for the most recent Research Assessment Exercise for the UK.

The first numeric column reports the number of staff returned in the subject for each institution: UK departments are comparable in size to many Irish ones.  On the same website, one can browse to a narrative for each department: each institution is specifically required to comment on early career researchers.  Like some Irish deparments, many UK departments are also developing new talent.

Now compare their position in the Tilburg ranking https://econtop.uvt.nl/   to Irish departments. 

Everyone still happy?

29 Responses to “Quality of Irish Economics Departments: it’s neither Size nor Youth that counts”

  1. zhou_enlai Says:

    @Michael Moore

    What do you think is the reason for what you see as the sub-par performance of Irish Universities?

  2. Ashley Piggins Says:

    @zhou_enlai

    I think the lack of an RAE is one reason. The RAE has had a huge impact on UK universities by giving staff incentives to do good research.

    In Ireland academics do research because they want to, not really because they have to. My contract specifies that I must teach, research and do admin under the direction of the head of department. In reality, all that is required is that I teach. A lack of research can harm you when you go for promotion, but most people earn so much money anyway that they are happy to sit at the top of the scale for the rest of their careers.

    Until this changes, don’t expect to see a rapid improvement in the position of Ireland’s universities.

  3. Colin Scott Says:

    The UK RAE results for economics and econometrics are presented as a ranking at http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/table/2008/dec/18/rae-2008-economics-and-econometrics. If you want to see how QUB ranks you need to look at Business - http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/table/2008/dec/18/rae-2008-business-and-management-studies.

  4. zhou_enlai Says:

    @AP

    I was actually trying to ascertain if MM was having a pop. There was a definite element of comedy to the first post. I could imagine MM muttering “let’s see what they make of that” as he hit the submit comment button. :)

    The RAE point is intersting though. Certainly, such measures would be justified in Ireland if we really are intent on developing a knowledge economy.

  5. Kevin O’Rourke Says:

    @zhou: Ashley is absolutely right. The particular rankings are always suspect, but the RAE has had a huge impact on UK academia, and for the better in my view.

    The problem is that Ireland is very small — too small for an RAE to be very informative. Being first in Ireland is what people might focus on, but that would obviously be irrelevant if we want to be competitive.

    Joining the RAE would be great, but there are obvious problems with that! Will Europe provide opportunities in this regard in the future? If they took the Lisbon agenda seriously it would be the logical way to go — especially if they combined it with a European academic labour market.

  6. Al Says:

    @ MM

    Quite happy, to answer your question.
    You dont sound happy from the tone of your emails.

    Does this soul searching count as part of your research portfolio?

    Alot of questions were asked of you from your last days posting:

    http://www.irisheconomy.ie/index.php/2010/01/05/low-quality-of-irish-universities-confirmed/

    Might count as teaching if you answered them…

    Al

  7. Richard Tol Says:

    @Kevin
    I think we’ve been through this before.

    The RAE greatly improved the academic quality of economics in the UK, while simultaneously killing off applied economics to the detriment of independent policy advice.

    The exercise is being revamped, but only after a whole generation was brought up to believe that quality = AER and policy-relevance = saying what the paymaster wants to hear.

  8. Kevin O’Rourke Says:

    @Richard, I can see what you are saying, but I wonder, in what fields other than economics might this be a serious consideration?

  9. Richard Tol Says:

    @Kevin
    I have no knowledge what happened in other disciplines. The experience may well be different, because everything depends on the choice of journals. This was done by disciplinary committees.

    I can imagine, though, that in the medical and engineering sciences you would want a mix of superb theoretical work and sound applied stuff.

  10. Paul Hunt Says:

    @Richard,

    I couldn’t agree more with your two posts. In my work I would rate the Department of Applied Economics at Cambridge, but it struggles to make a joint 55th in Tilburg’s ranking - and I suspect that is generated by their theoretical cousins. Most of the applied economics is being left to consulting firms and, though I’m not saying they don’t have competent economists, the paymaster’s voice will always determine the nature of the “independent” advice that’s provided.

    I would go so far as to say that the severity of the current economic recession is directly correlated with the extent to which applied economics has been downgraded in universities, genuinely independent economic policy advice is undervalued and consulting firms have dominated the arena.

  11. Michael Moore Says:

    @ Richard
    There is not a scintilla of evidence that the UK Research Asessment Exercise killed off “…”applied economics to the detriment of independent policy advice”.

    You are posing a false conflict between academic and applied research. In your own area, Nordhaus and Weitzmann are shining examples of simultaneous excellence in theoretical, applied and policy economics.

    If you mean that UK academic economists do less consulting, you are right. Why should the public sector subsidise such activity when there is a vigorous private consulting sector?

  12. John Says:

    @Richard

    >>The RAE greatly improved the academic quality of economics in the UK, while simultaneously killing off applied economics to the detriment of independent policy advice.

    Isn’t that an argument in favour of retaining the more digestible policy-relevant research underway in the even the smallest departments?

  13. Brian Lucey Says:

    MM
    Working as we do, thee and me, in business schools, there is a strong argument to be made for direct consulting experience (in more traditional econ schools read econ policy advice ) to be an integral part of the school staff mix. Its as has been said - we wouldnt want doctors to be taught entirely by theoreticians and for all of them to do theoretical work. So too for economics, I suggest. Now, as to how to value this contribution, how to select or incentivise the appropriate mix of same, thats a more difficult question.

  14. Richard Tol Says:

    @Michael Moore
    Nordhaus and Weitzman are, I believe, on the other side of the Atlantic.

    My experience is limited to the economics of energy and environment.

    The UK led the world when I started. Not any more.

    There are a few oldtimers around still, but the younger generation has either locked itself firmly in the ivory tower hoping to get into Econometrica or is teaching and consulting.

    Does this matter? Well, the UK used to have sound and innovative environmental and energy policies. Not any more, and to a certain degree because there is nobody with the authority and independence to tell policy makers when they’re wrong.

  15. Paul Hunt Says:

    @Michael Moore,

    “Why should the public sector subsidise such activity [i.e. consulting by academic economists] when there is a vigorous private consulting sector?”

    I don’t think anyone is proposing that the public sector should subsidise this explicitly. Indeed, since I work in consulting, I frequently resent tenured academics queering the pitch by undercutting on rates. What I would like to see (similar to Brian Lucey) is a mix of the theoretical and the applied. And, rather than genuflecting before these university rankings, I would prefer to see the quality of economic teaching and research reflected in the performance of the economy and the well-being of citizens.

    And, in the Irish context, I believe a body such as the ESRI should be completely funded by the public purse (rather than relying, partly, on revenue from consulting and research services) with a brief from policy-makers to “make life hard for us”. In fact, it would only benefit policy-makers as it would compel their political masters to explain to their masters, the voters, why some policies they were pursuing were stupid and why these independently assessed and evidence-based policies were better.

  16. Kevin O’Rourke Says:

    The staff numbers referred to in the table Michael links to are not total staff numbers, just the numbers of staff who were included in the RAE submissions. The lattter is a choice variable.

    The website Michael refers to says:

    Since decisions on which staff to include in submissions lay with HEIs, the FTE Category A staff submitted does not necessarily constitute the total FTE of staff who were active in research in that subject and HEI on the census date

  17. Michael Moore Says:

    @ Richard
    I agree with you about the anti-intellectualism of Britain’s environmental and energy policies. The commissioning of the Stern Report is one catastrophe with which you are very familiar.
    However the same feature is a property of many UK policies in the last decade. An obvious recent example is the Home Secretary’s rejection of academic advice on the classification of recreational drugs.

    It is hard to argue, as you seem to, that this is due to a lack of independent policy advice. The UK government has access to such advice from anywhere in the world but chooses not to pay attention to it.

    None of this has any bearing on the nature of academic research carried out in the UK. Against provinciality, the Gods themselves contend in vain….

  18. Michael Moore Says:

    @ Kevin,

    You are right but QR funding is only available for staff returned. In previous RAE’s the % of staff returned was also reported. The results for the 2001 RAE are therefore indicative. There was a high positive correlation between % of staff returned and the quality of the research outcome.

  19. Brian Lucey Says:

    Michael
    Its not just in teh UK that “government has access to such advice from anywhere in the world but chooses not to pay attention to it”
    A plethora of academics, domestic and foreign, ranging from teh most junior to the most senior, from the obscure to the superstar-nobel caste suggested that perhaps, just perhaps, flinging public money via NAMA to the share/bond holders was ….illadvised. Did they listen ?
    Politics is politics…

  20. Kevin O’Rourke Says:

    The big benefit of one mega-university would of course be that at this stage (17.43, Friday evening) we could go out and have a beer and argue about this some more!

  21. Declan Jordan Says:

    @zhou

    How would more academic economic research have any effect on “developing a knowledge economy” (whatever that is…).

    The RAE has created incentives for academic economists in the UK to focus significantly on research outut to the detriment of the teaching aspect of the academic role. (IMO providing critical-thinking, thoughful graduates is far more likely to contribute to a ‘knowledge economy’ (whatever that is…). I am aware of many UK university economists who do not teach - who are only required to publish. We end up with an even greater problem of junior/new lecturers teaching our first year UG classes while senior staff would be encouraged to have nothing to do with those students/customers that pay their wages.

  22. Ernie Ball Says:

    I have my own very simple way of measuring the quality of academic departments. It goes like this:

    The more the members of an academic department care about idiotic and arbitrary rankings, the worse the department is.

    Judging from these threads, it would appear that Ireland’s economics departments are in rather poor shape.

  23. Paul Iticsdotayee Says:

    @Ernie Ball
    Why not ask the customers? Ask the students 3, 5, 10, 15, 20, 30, 40 and 50 years after they leave the university? Ask the ones living abroad to get their opinion of how their university has prepared them relative to students of other universitites in other countries?

    Also ask the public and those in the public and government sphere. How much do you feel academics in Ireland contribute to making Ireland a better place? Which disciplines contribute most in absolute terms and in their overall fields? Academic economists contribute a lot but until recently share auctioneer and loan auctioneer economists dominated coverage of economic matters. Ask the academics themselves. Which disciplines do you feel do best at contibuting to public life and provide the greatest quantity and best quality of analysis in their own fields?

    Teaching - essential.
    Research of Ireland - essential.
    Research of general economic problems - noble.
    Application of research to solving Irish problems - IMPERATIVE.

  24. Al Says:

    Paul

    Perhaps you would consider that the media ran to the econo salesmen and women for comment while the boom was booming.
    Then after this they ran to others for an explanation….
    They didnt run to every academic economist in the country,
    Just those that sounded intelligent and passionate most of the time.

    Are you advocating for a media component to an academics workload?
    Does Liveline count?

    Al

  25. Brian Lucey Says:

    Al
    Speaking personally, its no harm in my view for professors to profess. That may at times involve meeja activities.

  26. Al Says:

    BL
    Probably could be considered a public duty for the professorial grade,
    considering the salaries…
    Night!
    Al

  27. kevin denny Says:

    The threads sparked by Michael Moore’s posts seem tiresome and parochial. Economics departments are not football teams. So while one can understand how some people might argue about whether Manchester United or Arsenal are the better team (I know, no argument there really..) I don’t see the point in knowing whether UCD is “better” than Alabama.
    Consider a great scholar in a lousy department: should she feel bad at its low ranking? Well no, its not her fault. Likewise, consider someone who is not very good but is in a top department (somehow): can he take pleasure or pride in this ranking? Well no, its no thanks to him.
    So, personally, I am happy to be judged, for good or ill, by my own record. The average of the people whoses offices are on the same corridor is of no consequence to me- however much I like and respect them.

  28. Kevin O'Rourke Says:

    Update, from today’s Sindo:

    Mr Sutherland also said that Trinity and UCD should combine to create a world-class institution. He added: “We would have a top-20 or even a top-10 player to compete in the big leagues and, if so, wouldn’t that be the best thing for Ireland?”

    It’s hard to know where to begin when faced with something like this…

  29. B P Woods Says:

    @ Kevin: “It’s hard to know where to begin when faced with something like this…”

    Agreed, but press him hard to explain, clearly, what exactly he has in mind. No personal offense to PS, but he comes across as knowing, with 100% certainty what he DOES NOT want, whilst not having a clue what he DOES want - common enough type of behaviour. I am quite certain he could clearly articulate what is necessary if he were pressed on the issue.

    Reforming the third-level sector (on the island) is probably long overdue. However if administrators, bureaucrats, accountants and non-biophysical economists dictate both the agenda and the outcome - we (the citizens) will get what we do not deserve - and we are, in the final analysis the ones who are doing the paying! Cui bono?, as the man asked.

    B Peter

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