In the second of a series charting the history of Economics at LSE, Jim Thomas explores the post-Robbins era from 1961, characterised by the “Americanisation” of Economics. 

The retirement of Lionel Robbins in 1961 led to some confusion over who would replace him as the head of the Department and, observing this as a very junior member of staff, I saw some similarity with the situation in Russia after the death of Stalin. However, the situation was quickly resolved, as the School introduced a system of Convenors, in which Heads of Department would serve for a three-year term and the post would rotate around the department. Thus, a Robbins Era would not occur again.

The first convenor of the Economics Department was Ely Devons (1913-1967). He had listened to the younger economists and set about modernising the Department. Many of the senior professors were retiring and Ely was able to persuade Frank Hahn (1925-2013) and Terence Gorman (1923-2003) to come to LSE, which then attracted other leading economists to come, such as Harry Johnson (1923-1977), Michio Morishima (1923-2004) and many others. The pressure from Bill Phillips and Jim Durbin to develop Econometrics led to the appointment of Rex Bergstrom (1925-2005) and Denis Sargan (1924-1996) in 1963 and his research, together with the remarkable PhD students he taught (such as David Hendry (1944- ), Peter Phillips (1948- ) and many others) meant that within a few years LSE had moved from having virtually no Econometrics to having the leading group of econometricians in the UK.

Frank Hahn, c1970s

Frank Hahn, c1970s. Credit: LSE Library

The other important work that Devons set in train was to professionalise (or “Americanise”) Economics. For example, Robbins and many of his generation had been of the view that an academic didn’t really need more than First Class Honours in an undergraduate degree to become an academic. I benefitted from this assumption, as in 1960 when I graduated with First Class Honours in the BSc (Econ), having specialised in Statistics and Mathematics, I was immediately appointed an Assistant Lecturer in Economics. As at that time, my only formal training in Economics were one-year Intermediate Level courses in Microeconomics and Macroeconomics, my struggles proved a painful exception to the Robbins view!

The MSc degree at that time was seen by many as suitable for a graduate student who had started on a PhD and wasn’t going to make it. The MSc consisted of a less demanding thesis and an examination set on the area in which the thesis was based. The new MSc initially had no thesis and consisted of four written examinations. Soon after this new degree was introduced, the minimum requirement for academic employment in Economics at LSE was no longer an undergraduate degree, but the MSc.

Next came the PhD, with moves to introduce coursework, in the form of the new MSc, as the first year of registration for a PhD in Economics at LSE. Then, after a battle with the University of London, there came the replacement of the requirement to write a single 75,000-length thesis with the acceptance of a number of shorter pieces of work that publishable. I have called this process “Americanisation” as after the “reform” of the PhD to a more American PhD structure, it became the norm to require a PhD for appointment to the staff of the Economics Department at LSE. Harry Johnson gave great support to these developments, but was disappointed by the resistance to the changes both within LSE and the University of London. Eli Devons became very ill and died in 1967. He was sorely missed and it is important that his work in the post-Robbins development of the Economics Department should be recognised.

Michio Morishima, c1980

Michio Morishima, c1980. Credit: LSE Library

Another major change in the post-Robbins period has been the structure of research in Economics. During the first two eras outlined above, most researchers would be working alone, or at most with one or two collaborators. The foundation of the large research centres, such as the Centre for Economic Performance, the Financial Markets Group and the centres grouped within STICERD (in whose founding Michio Morishima played an important role), has seen many researchers now working in groups, with much more support and better resources than in earlier times. This has also improved life for PhD students, who are often involved in large research programmes.

Given the expansion of the numbers in the Economics Department and those working in the research centres, there are a large number of economists at LSE. The range of teaching and research being carried out is too extensive to be discussed in a short account such as this. To summarise, one may say that in the Post-Robbins period, the Economics Department, together with the research centres, have expanded and developed into one of the leading centres for Economics in the UK and in the World.

Contributed by Jim Thomas (Emeritus Reader in Economics and Research Associate, STICERD, LSE) See the STICERD website for the full original post with further information on the history of Economics at LSE: 1961 to date: Post-Robbins and the ‘Americanisation’ of Economics

Read more

A history of Economics at LSE part 1 – Edwin Cannan and Lionel Robbins

Listen to Jim Thomas’ LSE oral history

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