After a long walk down the meandering stairwells of the Institute of Education, a buzz and flutter greeted us as we entered Elvin Hall. Students and faculty milled about engaging in pleasant conversation – the nervous excitement of the former palpable in the afternoon air. And they were right to be – the Eighth Edition of the Explore Econ Conference was about to begin.
For those unfamiliar with this much-anticipated annual departmental tradition, the Explore Econ conference, organised by the Centre for Teaching and Learning Economics (CTaLE), is a space for undergraduate student researchers to submit and showcase their independent research that they have undertaken over the course of the year. This conference is a part of CTaLE’s project on Enhancing Research-Education Synergy funded by SHS faculty. After being held entirely online the last year due to COVID-imposed restrictions, the Eighth Edition went with a novel “blended approach” – a theme which threaded throughout the showcase.
As the clock struck two, the buzz of the room quietened to an adrenaline-fueled hum and Professor Ramin Nassehi took the stage. With his deft ability to work the crowd, in minutes he had the walls shaking as he chanted: “EXPLORE!”, the crowd roaring back: “ECON!”. The “EXPLORE ECON!” chorus mellowed as Professor Kathleen Armour, Vice Provost, walked to the front of the room and delivered her opening address.
With introductions out of the way, nervous energy channelled, and crowd engaged, the first session was off to a scintillating start with Guillaume Marder’s presentation on the possible impact of rolling out a revenue neutral reform of a uniform VAT rate in Spain. Despite taking a moment of wrestling with a troublesome lecture-pointer-device, Guillaume joined the crowd in laughter before commencing his presentation. Being awarded the runner-up position for Best Research Paper, Guillaume’s analysis detailed how the proposed reform to Spain’s VAT rate could result in both substantial efficiency and equity gains. He argued that a uniform rate would require fewer administrative costs, less informational transmission to taxpayers – therefore reducing likelihood of evasion, and a flatter tax burden resulting in equity gains.
Next up, Jakub Terlikowski began his presentation sans troubles with the pointer. Jakub’s paper, formative in its unique modelling, used an extended version of the Susceptible, Infected, Recovered (SIR) model to derive optimal vaccine allocation. His SIR model was modified to include Death as a component and investigated how interactions between societies and impediments to daily vaccine administration impact optimum vaccine allocation. One can see why he won the Best Research Paper award, given his novel theorising on this ever-pertinent issue.
To bring the first session to the close, Victor Arribas Martinez took the stage; nay – the screen! True to their word, this year’s conference brought us one step closer to the metaverse with Victor delivering his presentation over video. In a fascinating analysis of the Industrial Productivity Wall between West and East Germany more than thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Victor’s paper applies a firm-level approach by aggregating data of firms in East and West Germany. His findings show that productivity is significantly higher in West German firms while the elasticity of substitution of labour and capital is significantly higher in East German firms.
One short commercial break later (brought to you by Prof. Nassehi), the students were back, this time with Adam Horne, a third year Economics student, taking the stage. As runner up for Best Poster, he cast a light on a dark corner in our field: intellectual property legislation. It pointed out that to provide meaningful benefits, the level of legislation must be prepared to vary with the present stage of growth and development in a country.
Kaicheng Lu’s charming smile introduced a monumental presentation on the relationship between aid and development which served the full course meal: econometric review, a rich adverse selection model, and novel policy recommendations. Despite being just seventeen in his second year, his explanations were confident, noting that foreign aid is not always effective due to the interaction of aid money with the resource endowments a recipient already has. Furthermore, he argued that such endowments are not well considered by donors since foreign aid rarely buys political support.
Neil Majithia arrived to a chorus of hoots and cheers from his mates, as he proposed a solution to a problem that had turned second year macroeconomics into “a subject that nobody liked” – the Excel based 3-equation model simulator used in the course. Frustrated by compatibility issues and unable to solve his misconceptions using the given simulator, Neil decided to code his own. Set in a cross-platform web-app, it gives the same results as the old simulator, and also displays the relevant graphs for the 3-equation model. His contribution has immediate, obvious, and revolutionary consequences for second year economists: it is no wonder it won Best Poster.
Gaurav Khatri covered in his seminal paper the refugee crisis in Bangladesh in 2017 following a large-scale genocide of Rohingya Muslims in neighbouring Myanmar. Using it as a natural experiment for the effects of the incoming refugees on the wages of low-skilled workers in Bangladesh, Gaurav conducted careful empirical analysis, picking a well-justified control group, with a masterful conclusion that the refugee influx did not affect wages in the region of Bangladesh they had settled. Further, he theorised on why this was the case, quoting labour market dynamics and skill matching as possible explanations. With just the right combination of salience, lucidity, and surprise, Gaurav’s paper was indeed the most deserving of the inaugural Stone Centre Prize.
Finally, the Ignite Session on Education and Inequality saw the audience conveying to a student-staff panel their views on the issues raised using everyone’s beloved Mentimeter. Interrogators Arshiya Sawhney and Benjamin Hentschel grilled the experts: Sarah Cattan, Associate Director in Education and Skills at the IFS, and Asma Benhenda, Research Fellow at the IOE here at UCL. The issues covered were broad, including earnings gaps, labour mobility, and disruption to childhood education due to the pandemic.
And then came the prizes!
Perhaps it is this final photo that really captures what the conference means to us students. It is a way to access each other’s ideas in their purest form, sharing them with interested peers and mentors who aren’t thousands of miles away behind a screen, but present and most certainly proud. Rarely do institutions provide such a prominent platform for their fledgling members; rarely do the fledglings jump the nest and take this stage. Unconstrained by pressures felt much later in academic life, the output this year was extraordinary, with the future of our conference looking to only get brighter.
By Suraj Sridhar and Manasa Sanjay
A version of this article first appeared in The Economic Tribune, on 14 July 2022.