David Butler considers IFS research indicating some of the factors behind  the underrepresentation of some groups in the economics profession.

Economics degrees offer some of the highest financial returns in terms of future earnings capacity but women and some ethnic groups are severely underrepresented in the economics profession. This has implications for inequalities in pay and social mobility. Recently published research by the Institute of Fiscal Studies looks at the factors that possibly drive the differential take-up of degree courses in economics across groups (https://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/15261 January 2021)

The authors of the research (Advani, Sen and Warwick) found that in the academic year 2018/19 around 2% of UK undergraduates took courses mainly or entirely in economics. Of these, 69% had an A level in economics, compared to 7% of all undergraduates. While 1 in 5 students with an A level in economics went on to study economics at university, only 1 in 150 without A level economics did so. The authors conclude that, ‘economics A level is hugely important as a gateway into the discipline, even though no UK university requires prospective students to have taken the qualification ….’.  The authors also found very significant differences in the ‘conversion rate’ of those studying A level economics and then going on to degree courses in economics between males (23%) and females (16%). The conversion rates did not vary significantly between students attending private or state schools, although male students attending private schools were more likely to have studied economics than those attending state schools. However, there were significant differences between males and females and between private and state school students in the take-up of economics courses at university by those who had not studied A level economics. Male and female students attending state schools were far less likely than their counterparts in private schools to study economics at university if they did not have an A level in economics. A very low proportion of female students in state school who did not have A level economics went on to take university courses in economics. The authors therefore conclude that studying A level economics is a particularly important gateway to degree level economics for students attending state schools.

The authors go on to discuss some of the factors that possibly account for the differences in take up of degree courses in economics. Around half of non-selective state schools offer A level economics, compared to 77% of independent schools and 83% of grammar schools. This is an important consideration, given the differences in take-up of degree courses in economics between students who have and those that do not have A level economics.  Although the authors do not delve further into the possible reasons for these differences, they do suggest that the requirement by some universities for A level in mathematics to take their degree courses in economics might be a significant factor in take-up. This is because fewer females than males study A level mathematics (females made up slightly under 40% of entries in 2019/20).

Commentary and areas for further research

The research findings are important as they make a strong case for the teaching of A level economics, even though it is not a requirement to study for a degree in economics at any UK university. Fewer females than males take A level economics, fewer go on to study the subject at university and fewer become professional economists and therefore miss out on the high financial returns the subject offers.

The authors do not discuss the take up of degree courses in economics by different ethnic groups in this article but their previous research on the make up of economists in academia shows that the proportions who have Chinese and Indian heritage are strongly over-represented, while those from Black ethnic groups are under-represented. This pattern is likely to be reflected in the take-up of degree courses in economics but we do not know the breakdown of entries in A level economics by different ethnic groups.

The researchers focus entirely on schools yet we know that a substantial proportion of entries in A level economics come from further education colleges. It would be helpful to know if the patterns the researchers have identified are also reflective of college students.

Previous articles in the EBEA’s Journal, Teaching Business and Economics, have drawn attention to the fact that almost 70% of entries in A level economics is now made up by males and this proportion has not changed significantly in recent years.  It is not known why fewer females than males choose to study A level  economics or why females find other subjects (such as psychology and sociology) more attractive. One of the factors may well be the perceptions of the subject. YouGov data from 2017 shows that while 32% of a sample drawn from the general public felt that economics was male orientated, only 1% felt it was more female orientated. It would be useful to find out the attitudes to economics amongst 16 year olds and how this influences their decision as to whether or not to study A level economics. It would also be useful to find out if attitudes are different in those schools that offer introductory courses in economics for all students prior to making their A level choices.

The lack of A level economics provision in non-selective state schools is a major concern. This is at least in part due to the dire lack of properly qualified economics teachers which has been exacerbated by a severe decline in the numbers on PGCE courses. The highly regarded UCL Institute of Education PGCE economics course, which has long been a major provider of new economics teachers, has closed because it failed to attract sufficient numbers of students. There are, of course, other routes into teaching but the overall numbers of newly qualified economics teachers is probably at an all time low.  Allied to this is the reduction in specialist economics training places available as a result of the shift from HEI-led ITT to school-led provision which may be a factor too.

The IFS research identifies A level economics as a vitally important gateway to degree courses in economics. Countering the gender imbalance on degree courses and amongst professional economists therefore requires a bigger take-up of A level economics amongst females, particularly in non-selective state schools, which in turn means more state schools offering it, together with a shift in attitudes and perceptions of the subject amongst female students.

David Butler is the EBEA’s Advocacy Lead