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Faculty of Economics

Monday, 13 March, 2023

“Funnily enough, it all began in the autumn last year, with an unexpected phone call while I was sitting down to have my lunch, when a BBC researcher asked if I could explain how bonds worked,” explains Victoria Bateman, who specialises in economic history.

Of course, the journalist knew the function of bonds, but was keen to find someone who could explain to a Radio 4 audience not only how they worked, but also the history of how the financial instruments came into being.

She explains; “I admitted that I wasn't the world's expert on bond markets, but managed to happily chat on about the history of government borrowing - from the 1672 Stop of the Exchequer through to the eighteenth century financial revolution and then on to World War One bonds and how Britain, which it had become by then, had a well-developed financial system, which included an immense fiscal capacity, which helped the country, unlike continental Europe, to avoid hyperinflation in the 1920s.”

Other contributors to the series include Diane Coyle a Cambridge economist and a former advisor to the UK Treasury. Since March 2018, she has been the Bennett Professor of Public Policy at the University of Cambridge, co-directing the Bennett Institute, which is committed to interdisciplinary research into the major challenges facing the world, and has connections with many members of the Faculty. “Economics is influential in shaping policies or business decisions, that affect people’s lives, and it’s also not well understood by the general public. This is a recipe for growing doubt about economics when things aren’t going well,” she explains.

“I’ve always been convinced of the need for the economics profession to communicate better - including by listening to people, and when an opportunity came up to contribute to the series, I was delighted to take part, most recently on the processes and wider economic impact of bankruptcy,” she says.

The BBC Radio 4 economics series, ‘Understand: the economy’, is designed to explore, sometimes in a light-hearted way, the world of economics for those without an economics degree, but who would like to know about the economy and what it means for them. The first ten episodes were presented by Tim Harford, while the latest five episodes are presented by Felicity Hannah. All are broadcast on BBC Radio 4 around the UK, and are also available as a podcast.

Victoria Bateman is a fellow in economics at Gonville and Caius College, where she is Director of Studies for the Economics Tripos. However, for many alumni, she is best known for her lectures on how the economic world has developed. “As my supervision students have no doubt had to suffer, once I get talking about economic history, I find it difficult to stop!”

She says that because her analysis of a complex subject like the bond market was so well received, she was soon a regular contributor to the programme. “Initially, I was asked to contribute to a single episode, but it grew from there and, before I knew it, I was recording an economic history segment for every episode.”

This podcast abandons jargon for a simple to understand guide to complicated economic terms and phrases, such as inflation, GDP, and interest rates.

“Right now, many people are noticing that their shopping is getting more expensive, and sometimes their pay doesn't cover the bills. However, exactly why can be a bit of a mystery for the audience – and it’s something that a short report in the news doesn’t have time to go into. A 15 minute podcast is really like a short lecture, and it does just what I feel is important – give an understanding of economics, for those who think that economics isn’t for them,” she says. “How often do you see the audience’s eyes glaze over when someone says 'cutting taxes stimulates growth’. In this programme we explain the why, without complicated formulae or hours of explanation.”

The programme is also available as a podcast on the BBC iplayer, and covers some surprising histories, from the war hungry kings who have shaped how things are counted today, to greedy merchants flooding Spain with silver coins.

Victoria Bateman explains why she thinks this is crucial – that the general population understand the basics of economics. “As academics, we're used to communicating with one another in quite technical ways, and talking with one another in quite specialist silos, so it's been a welcome and refreshing challenge to be spanning hundreds of years of economic history, bringing to light interesting, and sometimes unknown people or events that have left a legacy today, and that can connect with radio listeners without a background knowledge of economics,” she says.

Professor Coyle was awarded a CBE for her contribution to the public understanding of economics in the 2018 New Year Honours. She says “Many economics graduates will go on to influential roles in business or the public sector. What we teach them will have a long-lasting effect. But what makes the teaching fun for me is that economics can be applied to so many important and challenging issues, from climate change, to economic regulation of AI systems, to improving the design of the pension system.”

Professor Coyle is the author of the bestselling book ‘GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History’, and her latest book is ‘Cogs and Monsters: What Economics Is, and What It Should Be’ on how economics needs to change to keep pace with the twenty-first century and the digital economy.

Victoria Bateman says the BBC Radio 4 series is very wide ranging. “Some of the contributions I've most enjoyed putting together include the segment for the episode on banks [episode 5], in which I introduce Priscilla Wakefield. She, in the eighteenth century, set up the first proper savings bank for women and children. There was also a segment for the episode on pricing [episode 11] in which I talked about the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, who were a group of millworkers who set up their own food cooperative to help families access their groceries more cheaply, whose legacy continues today in the form of The Co-op.”

However, she is concerned that economics isn’t as widely appreciated as it should be. “Sadly, economics isn't a compulsory subject at school, and we're all expected to somehow magically acquire financial literacy in time for our adult lives, from understanding mortgages to pensions. I know that when I was growing up, I thought of the economy as if it was a separate entity. It was kind of ‘out there, somewhere’.”

She studied economics at A-level at Oldham Sixth Form College where she was President of the Student Union. “I quickly realised that we are all ‘the economy’; that not only does the economy impact our daily lives, but that every decision we make as individuals contributes to and shapes that economy.”

She argues that there is also a continued need for us as economists to listen to those who understand the everyday reality of economic life, including through engagement with organisations such as Citizens Advice and “a favourite of mine: the Women's Budget Group.”

Summing up why she took part in the series, she says “I think it's vital that we all have a working knowledge of the economy, and that economics is accessible to the point that we can all discuss and question what our elected politicians - and our policymakers - are doing.”

The BBC Radio 4 series ‘Understand: The economy’ is available on the BBC iplayer: and on Apple Podcasts.