Andreu Mas-Colell: a lesson in economic success

In an era when borders are being strengthened and the powers of the western world increasingly eye foreign countries with suspicion, the Barcelona Graduate School of Economics stands proud in its global approach. The very foundations of the school are built on the premise of internationalization. “Our ambition,” says founder Andreu Mas-Colell, “was to be international; to be present in the world landscape as a European institution.”

With over 85 per cent of students coming from outside Spain, it’s an ambition that has certainly been realized, and one which continues to form a fundamental aspect of the school’s ethos. Together with an equally strong commitment to teaching as to research, the founding principles were then as they are now.

“Then, as now, it was not enough to be strong in research,” says Mas-Colell. “Although, I have to be clear that the school would not have been launched if we didn’t have a really strong pre-existing reality in both teaching and research. There are many people who can take credit for that; there is a history of 25-30 years of building up a really strong research background.

“But it was very important to have a nucleus of training. The ambition was that if we were going to be engaged in training then we want to be at the top, we want to do it very well, we want to be international and we want to be referenced in the world landscape.”

When he refers to the strong background, Mas-Colell is referring to the four founding institutions of Barcelona GSE: Universitat Pompeu Fabrau, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Institut d’Anàlisi Econòmica (CSIC) and Centre de Recerca de Economia Internacional (CREi). The powers-that-be in each institution recognized a growing need for a European graduate school that could operate on a global scale.

Mas-Colell explains: “Roughly 11 or 12 years ago, there were several trends at work. On the one hand, there was the increasing maturity of the economics teaching and research in Barcelona, particularly at UPF and UAB. In that sense, it was a natural growth from pre-existing reality. On the other hand, it was also a time of economics institutional reconfiguration in Europe. We’d seen the efficacy and the success of graduate schools in the US and in Britain, with the London School of Economics was leading the way, so it was time to make that leap in Continental Europe, and we were well positioned to do this.

“What was, and still is, very important is that the school has a very international outlook. The founding schools also had it but they were tied to the traditional forms of organization in continental Europe, and they were still quite conditioned by the national frameworks. The Barcelona GSE had an innovative legal and organizational form which allowed us to pursue the international configuration.

“It was a natural step. We already had – at least in both the doctoral programs at UPF and UAB – a very substantial international component, so there was no discontinuity in that respect. We took it for granted that internationalization was a desirable development.”

A shared ethos among each founding organizations was essential. But, says Mas-Colell, there were several factors that came together to contribute to the school’s success; as he puts it, “it was a case where all the stars seemed to align.”

“The four academic institutions had to agree – they were the initiators and they aligned, and that’s not always the easiest thing to do. That had to work – if it didn’t work we wouldn’t have a school.”

“The second thing that was important was to enroll and enlist the private and non-profit institutions.  We needed to provide support in the form of fellowships, which we succeeded in getting.

“The third thing that was very important from the very beginning was the endorsements from the academic community, both local and international. Our board and Scientific Council, which were established at moment zero, contain distinguished academics: fellows of the Economic Society, Nobel laureates, people at a very high level. “

“It was really an endorsement from the international economics community and that was very important. It was also important internally, for the academic institutions and the private non-profit sector, to see that we had the support, endorsements and recognition from the economic community. The Scientific Council members have helped us throughout by constant suggestions and advice and also by putting their name at the side of the name of our institution. We appreciate that.”

t was in no small part down to Mas-Colell’s own significance in the economic community that backing of such eminent figures was secured.

After completing his undergraduate studies at the University of Barcelona (his home city), Mas-Colell gained a PhD from the University of Minnesota. He remained in the US and became a professor of economics and mathematics at the University of California Berkeley, before moving to Harvard, where he became the Louis Berkman professor of economics. Before returning to Spain to lead the Department of Economics and Business at Universitat Pompeu Fabra, he also served as editor-in-chief of the Journal of Mathematical Economics and the journal Econometrica.

Stepping away from academia, Mas-Colell became commissioner for universities and research of the Generalitat of Catalonia in 1999, before being promoted to minister in 2000. It was during this time that he founded the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies (ICREA), an organization set up to attract leading scientists in all fields to perform their research in 50 different host institutions in Catalonia. He served as secretary general of the European Research Council from July 2009 to August 2010. In 2010 was appointed minister for economy and knowledge in the Catalan government, where he was responsible for the government’s budget, economic policy and research policy until the end of 2015.

His awards are numerous and his research world-leading. He is credited as being joint author (along with Michael Winston and Jerry Green) of the world’s most popular textbook in graduate microeconomics, a feat he attributes to making “a demanding text, yet at the same time working a lot on exposition.”

With such an illustrious and respected career spanning decades, Mas-Colell has been witness to several changes in the economics landscape.

“One of the drivers is tools,” he asserts. “What I have perceived in my lifetime is that economics has become much more infused and driven by the availability of data and the parallel development of computing power. In that respect, economics is totally changed from what it was when I was doing the PhD. Of course, there was data and numbers and there were many economists working in that field, but you could only go so far”.

“At the core of the subject, I don’t see that much change. One looks at the graduate studies, it’s micro, macro, econometrics and it was the same when I did my studies.  But there are cycles in emphasis; when I got into economics, development economics was in a decline period, and who would say that now when it is at centre stage? The emergence of behaviour economics has been very important. In other respects, such as the involvement of economist in public life, I think it’s the same. I don’t see any difference.”

Barcelona GSE was founded the year before the global financial crisis shook the world. Rather than being the feat of clever strategic planning, the timing was, says Mas-Colell, an element of luck.

“We were lucky,” he agrees. “Even as economist I would be disingenuous if I say we saw the crisis coming and we prepared ourselves for it. I would love to be able to say it but it wouldn’t be quite so. There was an element of luck, but it was certainly very convenient because it would have been much more difficult to establish the school during the crisis.”

When asked what issues face economists right now, Mas-Colell returns to this topic.

“I suppose you may be alluding to what we were doing while the crisis was cooking? I am not prone to big judgement on matters like that – I think that economists understand some things. I think that usually what we understand is conditional and one cannot predict absolutely what will happen in one or two years. We may say if this happened that other thing will happen, and so on.

“As for the crisis, well, one issue is: was it seen? Was it not seen? Was it evaluated properly? Probably not, but that is easy to say after the fact.  Before the fact, it is difficult, even if you have your suspicions, to say this is going to crash, because you are always concerned that if you are that strong in your statements maybe you are going to be seen as one more cause of the crash.”

“What is certainly true, or what I hope will be true, is that, as in the past, we will learn the lessons of this crisis and as a consequence there will not be in the future a crisis like this. For sure, there will be crises of other types but I am optimistic and think that economics at least is useful not to repeat the mistakes.”

As it celebrates its tenth anniversary, there’s little doubt that Barcelona GSE is producing the global economists of the future; those who will be applying these valuable lessons, thanks in no small part to the foresight of the Barcelona economics community.

As the founder of the school, what does Mas-Colell sees as its greatest achievements to date?

“The internationalization has been spectacular,” he says. “There has been international impact and I think we are more or less where we wanted to be. Secondly, and this is more internal to Spain but also very important, the Spanish government has recognized the Barcelona GSE as a top research institution through the Severo Ochoa program of excellence. This brings recognition, but also resources.”

And the challenges ahead?

“I am the man of 10 years ago, so I think that should be answered by Teresa [Garcia-MIla, director of the Barcelona GSE] and the people who are involved now,” he says. “But as the guy of 10 years ago, I am very happy and very satisfied in how things have gone”.

“But what I do want to say to the alumni of the last 10 years, is that I hope that we responded to your expectations. We’ll keep working so that the reputation of having studied with us will be a good currency and maintain a high value. I applaud you for having faith in us; your success is our success.”

This article was written for the Barcelona Graduate School of Economics alumni magazine.