Q&A with Diane Coyle

We speak to the new professor of economics at the University of Manchester

March 27, 2014

Diane Coyle is vice-chair of the BBC Trust and also sits on the Economic and Social Research Council research committee. She was economics editor on The Independent for eight years and a member of the 2010 Browne Review of higher education funding. In September she is taking up a role as a professor of economics at the University of Manchester.

Where and when were you born?
Bury, Lancashire in 1961. I grew up in Ramsbottom, then a rather grim mill town, now a very pleasant place.

How has this shaped you?
In the way we’re all shaped by our upbringing. I grew up a working-class Northerner. That’s not my life now, but I remember there not being much money around so I hoard special buys from the supermarket, and I still like my beef properly cooked, ie, brown all the way through.

What is the biggest economic challenge facing the world at the moment/in the near future?
Moving from an ultra short-term time horizon for economic choices (by governments, businesses and individuals) to long-term sustainability of all kinds: environmental, financial and social.

Will the UK’s economy ever be completely free from the disastrous effects of the 2008 financial crisis?
“Ever” is a long time…but we’re certainly a long way from cleaning up the financial system itself. Banks are still undercapitalised and over-leveraged, do not face effective competition and serve their customers very badly.

Do policymakers listen enough to academics?
Largely only to the academics who make the time and effort to engage with them, including through the media.

If not, why?
Many academics are poor communicators because their professional standing rests on their internal language, and their incentives have so far largely been tied to research publications. And it does take substantial time and effort to engage with the policy world, which has its own peculiarities and pitfalls. However, policymakers greatly undervalue what they could get from engagement with academics.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
To be less afraid; to be courageous about taking opportunities.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
The earliest ambition I can remember is wanting to be a philosopher, spending my days sitting in Parisian cafes. I have a vague recollection of wanting at an earlier stage to be a detective.

What do you do for fun?
Ballet classes.

What’s the use of economics?
At its best, economics is an engine of progress. It can inform decisions and policies that make people better off, in the narrow monetary sense and in the wider sense of social welfare. Like many people, including many economists, I think economics has to use the opportunity of the financial crisis to reflect on its shortcomings, including an overly reductive perspective, and a lack of awareness of history and geography. But I also get frustrated about critics who make sweeping assertions about how terrible economics is when they’ve paid no attention to how much it has changed since 1980. Economics now engages more with other social sciences, does not assume everybody is always rational, incorporates imperfect information and herd psychology, uses experimental methods, and so on. But we can improve it, and we can and must update what we teach.

Is the BBC licence fee worth it?
Definitely. Less than 40p per day per household for 26 services, which 96 per cent of people in the UK use each week.

Where would we be if the BBC’s detractors succeeded in dismantling it?
We’d be bereft of one of our most significant national civic and cultural institutions, and one that has shaped the media landscape in the UK into one of the most vibrant in the world. It won’t happen, for all the BBC’s own goals; the detractors are noisy but small in number.

What’s your biggest regret?
None, in terms of my career, because everybody has to make choices and there’s no right answer. Perhaps I could have gone further faster if I’d not worked part-time after having children, but I certainly don’t regret that.

What’s an undergraduate degree worth?
A significant graduate wage premium still – especially for women – and a priceless opportunity to become open to new ideas and exhilarating conversations for the rest of your life.

With hindsight, would you change anything in the Browne Review’s final report?
The report itself stands up fairly well, but it was intended as a package and we were, with hindsight, over-optimistic about the possibility of it being implemented anything other than piecemeal.

Would you like to see the fee cap raised above £9,000?
The report argued against a cap, because many institutions clearly did not know their cost base and would simply use a cap as a signal of what to charge. This is exactly what happened. Our proposal was to have no cap but instead a mechanism for taxing institutions that charged more than about £6,000 a year by an increasing proportion to recycle into bursaries.

john.elmes@tsleducation.com

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