Written & submitted by Phin Godfrey, UCL UG Economics student, who joined Ramin’s Economics Walk on 8 October 2021.
During the first week of term, I finally had the chance to attend the in-person UCL Economics Walk, having eagerly anticipated it since attending the fascinating virtual edition in February. Attending the walk in-person has made me look at the streets of Bloomsbury differently by giving me an appreciation of how locations that I walk past every week are a part of the history of several different ideas which have shaped the world. It truly is a must-go event for anyone interested in the history of economics, London, or UCL.
The tour kicked off in the Main Quad with a discussion the origins of UCL. Before 1826, the only universities in England were Oxford and Cambridge – both of which were tied up with religion, with students needing to pledge allegiance to the Church of England in order to graduate. To break down this religious barrier to education, liberal Enlightenment thinkers, influenced by Jeremy Bentham, founded UCL to provide higher education to all regardless of religion. This open-access philosophy is captured in our motto: “Let all come who by merit deserve the most reward”. This radical approach ruffled a lot of feathers, and three years later King’s College London was founded to uphold conservative values – marking the start of our 200 year rivalry.
Our next stop took us to the Student Centre to visit the auto-icon of Jeremy Bentham. Although he did not found UCL, his ideas went on to inspire those that did. Bentham is famous for being the father of utilitarianism – the school of thought that argues the ethical choice is to do what creates the greatest happiness for the greatest number. With utility maximisation forming the backbone of much of economic theory we can see how utilitarianism still underpins economics today. We next moved to Drayton House, the UCL Department of Economics. Ramin drew our attention to the dedication to David Ricardo mounted outside the department, and we discussed how Ricardian ideas such as economic rent and comparative advantage were key to the foundation of Liberalism – one of the three ideologies that we learned about throughout the tour. We also learned that in 1871 the department held the first co-educational university class in Britain. Evidently the teaching was quality, as many of the women from this cohort went on to have impressive economic careers.
Socialism, was introduced at the next stop – which was, appropriately, Lenin’s old Bloomsbury house. Here, we started by trying to understand Marx’s work in its historical context. Marx was writing at a time of rising industrialisation and economic growth. But despite the benefits of laissez-faire capitalism espoused by liberalism, conditions were getting worse, not better, for workers. This discrepancy called for a critique of Ricardian economic theory – and this was exactly Marx’s intention when writing Capital: A Critique of Political Economy.
We also learned about the Fabian socialist movement, who rather than seeking revolution wanted to pursue socialist goals such as reducing poverty within a capitalist system. One of the alumni of the first co-educational university lecture, Beatrice Webb, was a key figure in the Fabian movement. Beatrice Webb and other members of the Fabian movement wanted to found a university to teach their ideas, leading to the historical quirk that the LSE was founded by socialists. This reminded me of my Grandma once telling me that her father forbade her from attending the LSE because it was too left-wing, clearly my Great-Grandfather was a man who knew his history!
The Economics Walk was a fantastic experience, and it was extremely valuable to feel connected to the past by visiting these sites in real life. The integration of photos and sound clips into the walk was also excellent. The only thing I would add would be a list of stops and discussion points that participants could take home with them to help them remember what was covered more clearly.