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Director of Institute for Fiscal Studies Delivers 2021 Ronald Tress Memorial Lecture

Paul Johnson outlined the key economic challenges facing Boris Johnson’s government in this virtual event.

Birkbeck’s Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics welcomed Paul Johnson, Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies to deliver the Ronald Tress Memorial Lecture on Wednesday 5 May 2021.

Taking place online for the first time in its history, the annual lecture commemorates former Master of Birkbeck and hugely influential economist Ronald Tress, who established the College’s Economics Department.

Entitled ‘Johnson on Johnson’, this year’s lecture explored the key economic challenges facing Boris Johnson’s government in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, from those which have dominated public consciousness, such as Brexit and climate change, to growing economic concerns including productivity and the future labour market.

Johnson, who is also a Birkbeck Economics alumnus, called for the Prime Minister to prioritise education to tackle slow productivity and increasing inequality, commenting: “A lot of the Levelling Up agenda is associated with investment in roads and railways and big capital projects, but what is actually the difference between the poorer regions of the UK and the richer regions of the UK? The difference lies in the education qualifications of the people who live there, overwhelmingly.”

Among ways to address this issue, Johnson noted the need to improve basic numeracy and literacy skills among adults and to reform the secondary curriculum, which is unique in Europe in featuring a “high-stakes” exam at age sixteen and very narrow options from that point onwards.

Highlighting the effectiveness of unprecedented levels of state intervention throughout the pandemic – the furlough scheme, for example, is currently paying the wages of a quarter of private sector workers – Johnson acknowledged the huge challenge facing the Government with respect to future fiscal policy. In particular, he questioned how the state would find the necessary funds to maintain the expected standard of health and social care and pensions in the UK without raising taxes.

The lecture, which was attended by staff, students and friends of the College, was followed by a lively question and answer session, raising issues such as how to bring the public on side for potential policy change and how trends such as rising inheritance would impact future generations.

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