“The profound and lasting impact on world view, the ability to put complex global problems into an analytical framework and the exposure to inspirational brilliance in academic work”: Adam Austerfield (MSc Political Economy of Transition in Europe, 1998) shares his own story of life with the European Institute at LSE.
I arrived at LSE in January 1994, as a part time employee brought in by one of the Governors, Keith Mackrell, to help establish LSE Enterprise Ltd, a wholly-owned subsidiary of LSE and vehicle through which applied and consulting work could be undertaken (but that´s another story). I had recently finished a BA in Russian and East European History at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES, now part of UCL).
I started at SSEES in October 1989: by November, the Berlin Wall had come down. By the time I finished in 1992 the Soviet Union, after 75 years, had ceased to exist. My exam questions were being re-written on a monthly basis. I had been tutored by Robert Service and Geoffrey Hosking, amongst others. It was an incredibly exciting and intense time. Together on a mission to Bosnia, one LSE colleague, Professor Willem Buiter, put it succinctly how lucky I was to be there during those years (but his actual words are not printable in a family EI blog).
I quickly realised LSE was different. I was fortunate enough to have immediate exposure to the global and high-quality research work through various LSE Enterprise assignments, requiring me to absorb and edit political and economic insights by some of the world’s most accomplished faculty. It was a lot of fun, and LSE began to get under my skin and into my brain (often making the latter hurt). I would often discreetly slide away from my desk and “bunk off” to listen to faculty on areas I had found myself working with, or daytime public lectures on a whole range of subjects.
The CEO of LSE Enterprise was Neil Gregory, also then Head of LSE’s Research Division, through whom I came into the orbit of several people at LSE. This often took place in the 90s version of the Beaver’s Retreat Bar – a faculty, PhD student and senior administration hangout. You could smoke in it, it was that long ago. Around LSE I met Iain Crawford, a legendary Head of Public Relations who became a great friend; Professor Nick Barr, who was the School’s Higher Education (and wider Welfare State) economics professor who also had been working on transition issues, including stints at the World Bank, and the research-driven academic of the Barr/Crawford double act; and Professor Lord Meghnad Desai, another LSE great with whom many global adventures were to come.
Given the company I was increasingly keeping, after discussions with Iain and Nick I applied to the European Institute’s MSc Political Economy of Transition in Europe (PETE) and was accepted by the then Director, Howard Machin. The European Institute was a natural home after my previous studies at SSEES, and I started part-time in 1996. The PETE degree economics component was taught by Nick Barr, whom Iain had told me “if you are lucky you´ll get Nick – no-one better at the School to explain complex economics”, and he was exactly right. Lectures were so well structured and clear that they gave confidence to the class about addressing some of the most complex – and on-going – economic reforms processes on the planet. Shock therapy vs gradualism in economic transition? Socialism Capitalism Transformation (what a book by Leszek Balcerowitz), European Union integration, export-led economic recovery, sovereign debt legacies, welfare state reform, zloty foreign exchange bands, we had it all.
Within the PETE degree, alongside the core economics and politics modules and as with many European Institute and LSE degrees, I was able to choose modules of most interest. These included Soviet and Post-Soviet foreign policy in the Department of International Relations with the wonderful Margot Light and Government and Politics in Eastern Europe with the brilliant Vesselin Dimitrov, whose withering yet polite comment to a fellow student that “your argument is not exactly incontestable” I shall never forget. The political science seminars were sometimes hit and miss that year – we had practitioners from the EBRD, and sometimes less consistency from external faculty, but the core European Institute team and lectures were all inspiring.
One of the striking experiences of my time at the European Institute as a student in the mid-1990s was the composition of the classes. I was a complete outlier, an actual Londoner at the London School of Economics which made my far more exotic (to me) classmates intrigued. The classes had Americans, Poles, Hungarians, French, Brits (not many), Croats, Canadians, Russians, a good sprinkling of Germans and various other nationalities. This meant we would get first-hand experiences of transition from classmates, for example, and go from economic theory to “what actually happened to my family in Poland last year” in one go. Thus when it was your turn to present, it was less about impressing your tutor than ensuring your classmates didn’t tear holes in your argument, so you had better be prepared.
Working pretty much full-time at LSE in parallel was a tough balancing act, but I was on campus and working in often related fields. I was also helping the School’s applied education and consulting operation take shape, often with the leadership or input from the European Institute (huge EU grants that became the foundation of LSE’s research funding), Centre for Economic Performance with Richard Layard, the Financial Markets Group with Charles Goodhart and so on. There were sometimes eyebrows raised, I remember, in meetings in Brussels that the UK had such a centre for European studies since it would not join the Euro, Schengen and other central EU policies, and still relatively recently Margaret Thatcher had demanded the famous UK rebate for EU funding. However, since the Commission was stuffed full of LSE graduates there was an understanding of the complete independence and quality of the research work and thus an eagerness to apply it to complex economic and social issues in the EU.
For me, almost immediately after graduation in 1998, I found myself with Barr and Crawford in Hungary. They were essentially rescuing a World Bank-funded project for Higher Education reform, convincing the Hungarian Ministry of policy options that were not Bank-imposed conditionality but based on applying economic theory and empirical evidence from research. In hindsight, we had become agents of change in a major transition process. Having just finished my PETE dissertation on Hungarian Capital Markets, this rapidly became a tooth-cutting, formative experience that shaped my world-view for years to come, and perhaps still does. I took what I had just finished learning at LSE and was immersed in an East European country transition – from application of economic theory to the raw and often brutal reality of high-level politics – whilst remaining part of LSE was incredibly stimulating, unforgettable experience. The work later became a Research Excellence Framework (REF) Impact Case Study.
In the following 20 years I spent at LSE after the PETE degree I continued to work with a wide range of European Institute faculty and colleagues across teaching and applied work. Kevin Featherstone and I would discuss whose country was faring the worst during the 2008-9 financial crisis (I had moved to Spain by then); Paul Preston became a great friend and colleague to whom we owe so much through his work on Spain, less so to his devotion to Everton football club; Spyros Economides helped us think carefully about the Balkans for a DFiD reconstruction project I led in Bosnia Herzegovina; Iain Begg would deconstruct and explain the financial crisis and ECB Euro response with incredible clarity across our European activities; Mick Cox and I would have huge amounts of fun travelling across Europe with the Hay Festival, discussing EU-US foreign policy; and I could have spent forever in the company of Abby Innes and Gwen Sasse, both brilliant academics with endless travellers’ tales of their recent PhDs on Czechoslovakia (as it then was), and Ukraine, respectively.
Even from the early years, I used to tell people LSE was like the Hotel California in the famous Eagles song – you could check out, but you can never really leave. The profound and lasting impact on world view, the ability to put complex global problems into an analytical framework and the exposure to inspirational brilliance in academic work and its impact remain with all of us who spent time there. And in 15 years’ experience as the Spanish Alumni head in Spain, connecting regularly with the global groups on my trips around the world for LSE, when European Institute alumni meet each other, their smile is always the widest. Here’s to the next 30 years at the European Institute and the next century or so at LSE.