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An accidental economist

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Thursday 18 March, 2021 by Peter Smith

I never intended to be an economist…

It all began when I was choosing A-level subjects when I was a student at Pinner County Grammar School. I had no real idea what I wanted as a career, but decided to study English, French and Geography – only to fall foul of the timetable, where French and Geography were in the same slot. ‘Why not take economics?’ was the suggestion. This was a subject that was totally unknown to me – and, it turned out, to the school. The subject had never been offered before, and finding someone qualified to teach it turned out to be a major challenge, as we had four different teachers during the course. But I enjoyed it, and thought I was OK at it, so when applying for University I plumped for economics.

I was the first person from my family to go to University, and knew nothing about what it would be like, or where to choose. Warwick seemed as good a choice as any, although I was slightly surprised to be interviewed in a Portacabin in a muddy field.

So, there I was in October 1965, turning up at the building site that was the nascent University of Warwick, with its opening intake of 450 students (across all disciplines). The first week was eventful. I began to recognise other economics students, and by the end of the week I had been invited by a fellow student to gate-crash a golden wedding anniversary celebration in nearby Coventry, where I met my future wife. (By Easter 1966 we were engaged and are now ‘enjoying’ lockdown together.) Lectures were very different from my expectations, and I settled to study, becoming a bit of a swot, I think. A memory from those early days was when we were required to follow a course in computer programming (Algol) – before the University actually owned a computer! I finally became the first Warwick undergrad to be awarded in absentia (I was getting married at the time of the ceremony.)

Even then, I remained undecided about future career ideas. One of the lecturers (Keith Cowling) suggested that I consider going to the Centre for Urban and Regional Studies at the University of Birmingham. They were about to launch a Master’s in Town Planning, for which I applied. I then retreated to Harrow with my wife to spend the summer with my parents.

During that time, I received a letter from Birmingham saying that they had a PhD scholarship available, and as I had a First Class degree, would I like to take that up instead of doing the Master’s? So I spent the next 3 years in Birmingham researching labour markets in Coventry and the surrounding area.

What next? I was recommended to UCL to take a year as a Research Fellow on an input-output study being undertaken in the Geography Department. After that year, I took another research position in the UCL Political Economy Department, working with Wilfred Beckerman, Brian Henry, Malcolm Sawyer and others. After 2 years, Brian recommended me to the University of Southampton to work on the Southampton Econometric Model under Ivor Pearce. When the ESRC grant for this mammoth project ran out, I joined the lecturing staff. I was to stay at Southampton for the rest of my career, until retiring in 2015 as an Emeritus Professor.

Looking back, my first term teaching was something of a nightmare, as I was covering for staff on sabbatical. I had faced the idea of lecturing with great trepidation, but once I started I relished the challenge, and thoroughly enjoyed communicating economic ideas and interacting with students.

"I was the first person from my family to go to University, and knew nothing about what it would be like, or where to choose."

The early 1980s marked a turning point in my career. A colleague, Roy Chang, sadly passed away, and I inherited his teaching of development economics, and this became my focus for research and for teaching. During my career, I successfully supervised more than 20 PhD students from Africa and South East Asia.

Also in the early 1980s, a group of us in the Department launched a magazine called Economic Review¸ which aimed to present economic concepts and recent developments in theory to A-level students. This was an idea pioneered by Barry McCormick, the first editor. The magazine took off, reaching a peak circulation of 36,000. I became editor in 1996. The core aim of inspiring students new to economics by communicating new ideas in an accessible way was at the heart of what we tried to do with the magazine – and remains so today.

This drive to communicate with young economists extended in a number of ways. I became involved with writing a workbook to accompany David Begg’s undergraduate textbook and later with updating and extending a similar book to accompany John Sloman’s suite of books. In more recent years, this has involved the development of online materials to support student learning with the Sloman books. My first A-level Economics textbook was published in 2005; the latest is due in 2021.

I also became heavily involved in University administration as Associate Dean for Education. In my final years, I was seconded to the Vice-Chancellor’s office to lead a university-wide project on curriculum innovation, aiming to encourage students to look beyond the confines of their main discipline and catch glimpses of research and methodologies in a wide variety of settings. I also became a Reviewer for the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA).

So what did I gain from studying at Warwick? Being the first cohort of undergraduates, the attention that our lecturers gave us was personal and inspiring. They provided a wide and thorough education in economics and made us think for ourselves. From the start there was a focus on rigour and the scientific approach to the subject. For myself, I gained enormously in self-confidence and self-reliance. The reputation that Warwick created so quickly in those years was evident wherever I went.

About the author

Peter Smith

Professor Peter Smith is an Emeritus Professorial Fellow in Economics at the University of Southampton. Peter Smith had joined the University of Southampton in 1974 as a research fellow, taking up a lecturing position in 1978 and in 2015, he retired. Peter's primary interests are in development economics and economics education.

Peter Smith graduated from the University of Warwick with a First Class BA degree in Economics.

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