Director Thomas Lemieux helps UBC’s Vancouver School of Economics move into a new building and a new era
With a new director, new program, and new home, it’s full speed ahead for the Vancouver School of Economics, one of the top ranked schools of its kind in the world. Professor Thomas Lemieux, who recently took over as director after 15 years at UBC, steps into the role during a period of rapid growth. The school, created in 2012 as an expansion of the Department of Economics, launched a new Bachelor of International Economics (BIE) last year.
You’re relocating to the Iona Building in the fall of 2015. What will be the impact of this move?
It’s going to give us the opportunity to expand and improve on what we’re already doing well. It will remove our current space constraints. We’re going to have some lounges and informal learning spaces, so the students are going to be closer to the faculty, and there will be many more opportunities for everyone to interact.
We will also have an experimental lab where we can study how people make economic decisions when confronted with real problems, as opposed to just theorizing about what people may do. It’s an opportunity to bring together the psychology of how people really make decisions and apply that in some economic context. That’s another very exciting venture.
What did becoming the Vancouver School of Economics in December 2012 mean for the study of economics at UBC?
Becoming a school made it possible to exploit our full potential. It gave us the opportunity to create the Bachelor of International Economics, which is a direct-entry program. Our regular BA students are admitted into the Faculty of Arts, and then after two years they apply for admission to the major. In the BIE, they are admitted directly to the VSE.
In becoming the Vancouver School of Economics, we were also able to hire a good number of new faculty members. The most important thing is getting good people.
One of our new faculty members is assistant professor Joshua Gottlieb, from Harvard University, whose work on happy cities has been getting a lot of attention. We also recently hired four other assistant professors.
In addition, we are starting our own career centre. So becoming the Vancouver School of Economics is really exciting—it raises our profile, and makes UBC an even more interesting and attractive place.
Your first group of BIE students is entering its second year. What can you tell us about how the program is developing?
The first year, we had over 2,000 applications for 80 positions, and this year it went up to 2,800 applications. I think that’s a sign of how well the program is working.
It’s basically a cohort of 80 students per year, half domestic students and half international students. It’s really economics with an eye on the world. In the first year they do all their classes as a group, and I think this makes their experience as first-year students very different from what it would be otherwise.
Can you describe some of your own research?
I’m interested in labour market issues. The gap between rich and poor has definitely been increasing, so I’ve been trying to understand some of the causes behind that.
I’m also quite interested in education, and the value of a university degree in terms of job prospects and earnings. I think there’s a big myth that an arts degree is barely better than just going to high school. It may be true that, right now, you can find a job in the oilsands that pays a lot of money, but five years down the road these jobs are going to be gone, and if you just had these very specialized skills it’s going to be much harder to adapt.
What I find in my own research is that creativity is a very valuable skill in the changing labour market. University education helps people think critically about the world, and that’s part of what we are doing here at the VSE.