Friday, April 18, 2008

Self Interested Economists and the Birmingham Experiment

I read a post on International Political Economy Zone by my Birmingham colleague Emmanuel in the Politics department with amusement.

The post begins with Becker and then puts up the famous figure showing that trained economists are by far the highest percentage (twice as likely as any other discipline) that give NOTHING to charity - not a sausage.

Emmanual then uses an odd little example using Birmingham students to come to a similar conclusion. This made me laugh but I shall of course investigate further.

I bring this up for a natural experiment has just been conducted on the topic here at the University of Birmingham. Recently, the British Higher Education Academy (HEA) solicited survey responses from postgraduate research students about the quality of their postgraduate learning experiences. I filled out the form sometime ago as I will soon be eligible to become a member of the HEA and thought nothing more about it until I received another e-mail message about the survey. Apparently, the University was rather unhappy with the response rates from the survey and asked the various departments to improve the tally. (Only 15.9% of all postgraduate research students at Birmingham replied.)

As with the Frank et al. (1993) study, the results are instructive as they demonstrate the same phenomenon of homo economicus at play. Here is a brief rundown of the response rates from some of the departments along with some speculative commentary about why the response rates were such. You can view the entire file as well:

European Research Institute: 13/49 or 26.5% - Europeans are still quite civic-minded.
Electrical Engineering: 28/114 or 24.6% - I haven't the slightest clue what to say about this.
Chemical Engineering: 31/140 or 22.1% - Ditto.
Political Science: 11/66 or 18.0% - We lament declining voter turnout, but we're pretty apathetic ourselves.
Sociology: 4/42 or 9.5% - This survey is a bourgeois plot to further undermine our well-being.
Business School: 8/88 or 9.1% - How the !%^& will filling this survey help us earn money?
American and Canadian Studies: 1/39 or 2.6% - Studying American behaviour requires displaying similar kinds of apathy.
Theology and Religion: 3/287 or 3.0% - Earthly nonsense isn't to be bothered with.

...and dead last is [drum roll, please]...
Economics: 0/62 or 0.00% - There's nothing in it for me, bub.

The fact that not a SINGLE economics postgrad out of 62 bothered to fill the form in is rather sad. However, Emmanual would do well to check a couple of things:

1. Did our students actually get the original email? It may have required a member of staff to forward it which could be where the problem lies. How was the request passed to the students and if it did not come through the department why not?

2. Of the 62 students the nationality breakdown is probably fairly different from that of other departments. Should this matter?

3. Perhaps our 62 students are working too hard and are too ambitious to have the time to fill in forms.

4. The learning experience for our psotgrads might be so good that they simply have nothing negative to say about quality.

However, having said that, the result still does not surprise me.



Emmanuel said...

Dr. Elliot:

I'm glad you found the post amusing. I am quite sure that the message would not have been missed by Economics graduate students as it is on the front page of the my.bham portal for us research students. Here is the message from the Graduate School Director. I think it has something to do with the Graduate School offering an unspecified "prize":

Dear PG Researcher,

The Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES) has been organised by the Higher Education Academy (HEA) with UK Grad to create a picture of the quality of the PG Research student experience. PRES will provide both a national and local picture, so we can see how we compare with other institutions. The Survey will also identify where in the institution students feel we need to make improvements. As it is aimed specifically at research students we hope that you will all take part. We are offering a Prize to the PG student body in the School with the highest percentage return. We will let you know the results and also what we intend to do about any of the issues raised.

To complete the survey visit: ------------------------------

Best wishes,
Director of the University Graduate School

Rob said...

I am not sure how many students even use the my.bham portal. Unless it pops up everytime they log in that is.

Given the very low turn out from all departments I suspect that this was not pushed sufficiently at any level.

k_resh said...

Being a current student at Birmingham City University, i think the survey should have been advertised more better even at other Universities.
Maybe some more surveys should be handed out to students rather then visiting a website, so they can fill it in there and then.