I’ve got a new project on the go that focuses on the way we talk about houses. It’s the product of many a conversation with my friend and co-researcher, Frances Flanagan, about our society’s obsession with property.
Moving back to Australia after several years living abroad, it seemed everyone was talking about property: at dinner parties, at work, at the school gate, and in the newspaper. ‘Where do you live?’ was invariably the first question people asked us.
Frances and I wanted to think more carefully about what all this house talk adds up to? What are we really talking about when we talk about houses?
We are hoping that people will help us out by telling us about the houses they have lived in, the homes they have made and their frustrations along the way. There are no screening procedures and we are inviting anyone above the age of 18 to participate in our study.
Both the questionnaire and the interviews take the form of open-ended questions about your experience of and feelings about property. They also include some questions that help us understand how these experiences might differ across age, income, geographic and gender groups. We do not seek access to any of your personal information and all responses will be anonymised in any subsequent publication.
And in case you were wondering, the picture at the top is of the new search within school catchments facility from Domain.com.au – saying better than we ever could that houses are about much more than savvy finance.
It’s soft! It’s squidgy! It doesn’t weigh a ton! And it makes that lovely floppy sound when you flick the pages. Yes, dear friends, thanks to the libraries of the world and all those wonderful people out there who shelled out for the hardback edition (you know who you are), Empire of Scholars: universities, networks and the British academic world, 1850-1939 (Manchester, 2913) is now out in paperback.
This means it is actually a reasonable price too. AmazonUK has it at £18.99, AmazonUS meanwhile says it’s not been released yet but you can totes go to Bookdepository and get yourself some history for USD$26.01. And for those in Australia, let me introduce you to my new favourite book-sites-of-the-world aggregator, Booko.com.au which surveys more than two dozen sites and concludes that AbeBooks comes out top with a price of AUD$33.13 (including delivery). Way to go, Booko!
And I have to say, it feels kind of wonderful. Let’s face it, it’s a history book about universities. The audience for that was always limited. But somewhere out there it sold, which may even mean people are reading it. Actually the best evidence I have that someone is reading it comes from the University of Sydney catalogue which, for several months, was listing it as “missing”. Only illegal digitisation could have been a bigger compliment. So as a celebratory treat, and because I know all of you skip to the end anyway, here’s the final paragraph.
The economic and individual value of higher education
We have become accustomed to hearing the benefits of higher education measured in economic terms.
Universities Australia (the peak body for the sector) points to the value of universities as producers of both the knowledgeable workers and the research that will lead to economic growth. Publicly-funded university research, they argue, offers an excellent rate-of-return on investment.
Higher education is one of the nation’s top exports. As the “Keep It Clever” campaign outlines:
Our universities attract over one million students, employ over 120,000 staff and directly contribute $24 billion to GDP. At around $16 billion each year, international education is Australia’s largest export earner after resources, and it builds vital links with the world.
Graduates are worth A$198 billion a year to the economy, and pay over A$32 billion annually in tax.
These measures of the value of universities are economic and individual. They envision higher education as a marketplace. Paying students choose between the offerings of competing universities who attempt to highlight their individual selling points, be they old buildings, accessible campuses, or “employability”.
In all this talk, it is usually presumed that the benefits from a degree come from learning the course content. The notion that a large part of the value of education lies in the experience of meeting and sharing ideas with people who are different to you, playing with them on the sports fields, drinking with them in the bar, and engaging in a host of “extra-curricular” activities, is rarely heard.
Universities as public institutions
This is not the only way of valuing higher education. For most of the 20th century universities were seen in terms of their public role. They were understood as valuable because they strengthened democracy. By offering students the opportunity to engage in robust, thoughtful and informed discussion, universities produced responsible and engaged citizens.
They also trained students to fill roles that were key to the community. As doctors, lawyers, priests, architects, teachers, nurses, and in many other capacities, university graduates provided the professional services that served members of the public.
And when governments began to support university research, they did so because of its potential social benefit. Universities were seen to be valuable public institutions despite the fact that, for much of the twentieth century, they were far from accessible to most of the population. Undoubtedly graduates individually profited from their university education, but the private benefit they derived was generally framed within this broader notion of their public role.
The money that governments gave to universities was thought to pay off in ways that weren’t just economic. It was an investment in democracy, public services, and knowledge industries that would grow with graduates throughout their careers. It had a public benefit that was measured over the long term.
The shift in the way higher education is valued reflects the much bigger processes that have been reshaping global economies since the 1980s. Universities have needed to adapt to new funding arrangements and regulations, to new global markets, and to radical changes in technology and the way we receive and impart information. The new ways they present themselves are part of their attempt to adjust to these economic and political changes.
But we should reflect a little more deeply on the extent to which these new ways of valuing the university reflect our actual knowledge and experiences of them.
When do we reap the benefits of higher education?
So many of the economic promises universities make depend on time and on the assumption that present investment will bring future reward. But when should such benefits be measured?
The way graduates feel about their time at university will be different two, ten or 30 years after graduation. If on graduation it is getting a job that most concerns students, looking back a decade later it may be the opportunity to read and think, the friends made, or the extra-curricular activities undertaken that made the difference.
It’s not even clear that what is valuable about university is what gets taught in class. The Week Five unit in Third Year Statistics is rarely something that students remember, even in Week Six. There is, of course, real significance to the content of education, but for employers as for individuals the value of university is clearly about far more than what’s in the exam.
Universities claim to improve students’ work prospects and earning capacity, but where will future jobs be? Taking out a substantial loan to fund a degree is only a good personal investment if future earning and employment is predictable.
But all predictions say the employment market is rapidly changing. What courses should students study now in order to fill jobs we can’t yet imagine? And how much debt should they risk to do so? In the United States the huge cost of taking out student loans for university means that large numbers of graduates in America are actually left in a worse position after their studies.
University research certainly leads to innovation, but when is the impact of the work realised? It can be hard to predict the outcome of research or when it will prove useful. Sometimes, the most important breakthroughs are made trying to prove something else. Who knew it would be research into black holes that would give us wifi?
Our language of valuation is out of step with our experience
Even though students bear most of the cost of higher education, according to OECD indicators, in Australia it is the public that still profits most from it.
Higher education is clearly valued by individuals, by employers, and by the public in ways that extend far beyond economic and measures. But our language of valuation is out of step with our experience.
Learning is never the work of individuals alone. Ideas are always produced collectively: in institutions that pool resources, in research teams that bring together different forms of expertise, and in conversations that engage past and present thinkers.
Universities do need to make their sums add up, but they also need to do much more than this. As key institutions of our civil society, their role is to hold the market and the state to account, even as they serve them. As institutions dedicated to learning, they are working with a time scale that is much longer than that of quarterly reports and three-yearly election cycles.
And because so much about the future, our world, and what it is to be human is messy and unknown, the role of universities is to deal with uncertainty as much as it is to build knowledge and train experts.
These are qualities that fit awkwardly in a world where value is marketised and individualised, priced and preferably tradeable. It is precisely because of this that universities are so important.
When we speak of universities primarily in monetary terms, we fail to recognise that we actually value them in these other ways too.
Higher education is an investment, but it is an investment in a future that we all share. We need to speak about universities in terms that better reflect the roles we need and want them to play.