The history of economics at the University of Oxford

Oxford's Department of Economics is one of the largest and most diverse groups of academic economists in Europe. But it is surprisingly young: it was established in 1999, when we took up residence in the new Manor Road Building, designed by Norman Foster. So in 2019-20 we celebrate our 20th birthday.

Nevertheless Economics has a long history in Oxford’s colleges. Adam Smith came to Balliol College as a graduate student in 1740 – although he was not impressed by the standard of teaching here at the time. During the 19th Century, political economy was studied as an optional subject by students of classics (known as “Greats”), and the Drummond Chair in Political Economy was established in 1825. Many of the 19th Century political economists, like Nassau Senior, the first Drummond Professor, and Arnold Toynbee, who studied and taught here in the 1870s, were active in public and political as well as academic life.

Adam Smith

Nassau William Senior

Arnold Toynbee

Our first economics programme, the Diploma in Economics, was offered for postgraduate students from 1904, but economists such as L.L. Price thought that Oxford should be offering a degree: people with a knowledge of economics were needed by business and government. The inclusion of economics in the new undergraduate degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics – “modern greats” – created in 1920, was controversial: Price argued that it continued Oxford’s tradition of treating economics as “pretty… but unimportant”; and one of the earliest PPE students, John Hicks – later himself the Drummond Professor – claimed that he graduated with “no adequate qualification in any of the subjects” he had studied.

PPE will celebrate its centenary in 2020. It continues Oxford’s tradition of setting the study of economics in its wider social, political and ethical context, and – nothwithstanding Hicks’ criticisms – has educated many successful public figures, including Prime Ministers and Presidents. Despite Price’s concern, PPE brought a new generation of economists to Oxford as college tutors in the 1920s and 1930s, which led almost immediately to a shift away from the political economy tradition that underpinned PPE, towards research and teaching in the modern discipline of economics. Such influential figures as Roy Harrod, James Meade, and Jacob Marschak helped to establish Oxford as a major centre for economics research, with an emphasis on economic theory and statistical evidence.

John Hicks

Roy Harrod

James Meade

Jacob Marschak

Our first taught graduate degree, the BPhil in Economics, was set up in 1945. Until then, as Professor John Hicks explained at the time, doctoral students usually chose a topic in contemporary economic history. The Economics Sub-Faculty wished to encourage research that was “scientific in character”, requiring a training in analytical methods. Their vision was subsequently realised under the leadership of Professor James Mirrlees, who arrived in 1968: the BPhil was established as a unique structured graduate programme with an emphasis on advanced methods, which (in its later reincarnation as the MPhil in Economics) it retains today.  The MPhil has now expanded to around 65 incoming students each year, many of whom go on to successful research careers.  

A wave of new appointments beginning in the late 1960s marked the beginning of a hugely influential generation in the 1970s and 1980s, bringing Oxford economics to centre stage – most notably Nobel Prize winners Joseph Stigliz, Amartya Sen, and Jim Mirrlees. A memorial conference for Mirrlees, held at Nuffield College in April 2019, reassembled an impressive group of former students, including Nick Stern, Jim Poterba, Franklin Allen, Kevin Roberts, and John Kay. Other ongoing strengths of Oxford economics were built up at that time: the Centre for the Study of African Economies was set up in 1986 and the arrival of David Hendry and Steve Nickell from LSE re-established Oxford at the frontiers of econometrics.

Joseph Stigliz

David Hendry

Jim Mirrlees

Amartya Kumar Sen

The opening of the Manor Road Building in 1999 allowed students, tutors and professors – previously scattered across Oxford colleges – to come together in one place for lectures, classes and research activities.  We have gained enormously from opportunities to work together. Many talented young economists recruited in recent years, together with our highly distinguished senior professors, aim to make Oxford economics as influential in this century as it was in the last.

Bibliography

Daniel Norman Chester, Economics, Politics and Social Studies in Oxford, 1900-85, Macmillan, 1986.

Warren Young and Frederic S. Lee, Oxford Economics and Oxford Economists, Macmillan, 1993.

Department Profile

The University of Oxford's Department of Economics is home to one of the largest and most diverse groups of academic economists in Europe. Our members come from all over the world, and range from early-career researchers and lecturers to well established, and highly respected permanent faculty. We currently have a permanent faculty of 50, including 10 statutory (established) professors, and more than 30 early career researchers who are on fixed-term appointments of 3 or 4 years.

The research activity of the Department is broad-based, and we aim to produce first-class research outcomes across a range of areas, rather than specialising in particular sub-fields. Academics work within small and focused research groups, which provide an active and supportive environment for Department members to facilitate the development of high-quality research. Each group is convened by a senior member of the Department who is responsible for coordinating group activities, including regular workshops and seminars. 

The Department of Economics also has close ties with a number of different Oxford colleges, where our faculty can engage in educational, social and research-based activities alongside colleagues from a range of different disciplines. Currently, we have faculty members affiliated with the following colleges:

Research Strengths

As one of Europe's leading research departments, our members include some of the world's most distinguished academic economists. In the most recent UK Research Assessment, REF 2014, Oxford was ranked top in terms of overall research strength, with more research output graded as world-leading in terms of its originality, rigour and significance than did any other economics department in the United Kingdom.

Amongst our faculty 

Research into policy and practice

Throughout its history, Economics at Oxford has sought to forge close links between academic research and policy-making.

Members of the Department currently serve as:

Director of Policy Research in the world bank

Chief Economists At the Department for international development

General director of fair trading

Members of the monetary policy committee of the bank of england

Members of the competition commission

UK Parliment

Asian Development Bank

International Labour organisation

Various international and UN agencies

Our Programmes

The Department is committed to excellence in teaching at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. The Department's MPhil and DPhil programmes are internationally recognised for the excellence of the training and scholarship provided. Our graduates have progressed to positions of leadership in academia, in public services and in the private sector. Examples include: Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England; Amy Finkelstein, Professor of Economics at MIT and 2012 winner of the John Bates Clark medal, the Lord O'Donnell, formerly UK Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service; Dr Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India, 2004 to 2014, Dame Minouche Shafik, Director of the London School of Economics and former Deputy Governor of the Bank of England; the Lord Stern FBA, FRS, IG Patel Professor of Economics and Government at the LSE and advisor to the UK government on climate change.

MPhil Graduate Destinations 2013-2018

The MPhil in Economics prepares students for a wide range of future careers. Looking at the data from 2013-2018, half of students continue into an academic career. A good quarter starts a DPhil in Economics in Oxford. Another quarter starts a PhD at another university (most often in the US) or takes a short-term research assistant position, which is often used as a stepping-stone into a PhD program. About 40% of students enter the private sector, most often in (economic) consultancies or in finance. About 10% of students enter government services, central banks or international organizations.

One concern in the economics profession is the small number of female professors. At every step of the process towards becoming a professor, women are less likely to advance, which is often called the “leaky pipeline”. We are thus happy that this is not the case for the MPhil in Economics. While only 30% of MPhil students are female, male and female students are equally likely to start a PhD after the MPhil, either in Oxford or somewhere else.

DESTINATIONS BY YEAR


DPhil Oxford
RA (Short)
RA (Long)
Government
PhD Non Ox
Further Studies
Central Bank
Private Sector
Unknown

DESTINATIONS OVER THE PERIOD (2013-2018)


MPHIL DESTINATIONS BY GENDER

One concern in the economics profession is the small number of female professors. At every step of the process towards becoming a professor, women are less likely to advance, which is often called the “leaky pipeline”. We are thus happy that this is not the case for the MPhil in Economics. While only 30% of MPhil students are female, male and female students are equally likely to start a PhD after the MPhil, either in Oxford or somewhere else.

Female

DPhil Oxford
RA (Short)
RA (Long)
Government
PhD Non Ox
Further Studies
Central Bank
Private Sector
Unknown

Male

DPhil Oxford
RA (Short)
RA (Long)
Government
PhD Non Ox
Further Studies
Central Bank
Private Sector
Unknown