This piece for the Association of Commonwealth University’s (ACU) Bulletin magazine, no 179 (July 2013), has just come out. It’s behind a subscription wall, but for you, dear readers, my love knows no bounds. It has also been picked up by University World News (20 July 2013) here.

1931 Universities of the British Empire Congress, in Edinburgh

At the start of the 21st century, we are acutely conscious that universities operate within an entangled world of international scholarly connection. Phrases such as ‘the knowledge economy’, ‘internationalisation’ and ‘global competitiveness’ pepper the literature produced by universities and about them.

Yet the global world of higher education is unequal, and some institutions and countries are better positioned in it than others. Such phrases can often serve to mask the social and institutional practices that help shape academic connections, and the uneven geographies that they entail.

These are practices that have a long history – one that dates back to the development of the modern university at the end of the 19th century. This was a period in which the networks of the British imperialism drove much of what is today called ‘Victorian’ globalisation, and it was along the routes of empire that long-distance academic connections expanded and developed. If we are to develop a critical understanding of our own scholarly communities, then this is a history we need to consider carefully.

In the middle of the 19th century universities were set up in the booming settler colonies of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. They were not established by British officials, as in India and later Africa, but rather by self-confident settler elites who saw them as both symbols and disseminators of European civilisation in the colonies. Providing a classical and liberal (and often religious) education, they were designed to cultivate both the morals and the minds of the young men who would lead colonial society. Presuming the universality and superiority of ‘Western’ culture, these ‘settler’ universities established themselves as the local representatives of ‘universal’ knowledge, proudly proclaiming this position in the neo-gothic buildings they erected and the Latin mottos they adopted. Therefore, although they adapted old-world models, in their early years these settler universities were very much local affairs. Fashioned by colonial politics and frequently funded by the state, they were small institutions that served the sons of the colonial elite.

But in the 1870s, the relationship between culture and power began to change. New forms of global connection created by imperial expansion and revolutions in transport and communication forced settler universities to re-assert their position as institutions that straddled the local and the global.

They did so in two ways. First, settler universities reconfigured their relationship with their local constituencies. They expanded their educational franchise by opening their curricula to include science, law, medicine and engineering, and they admitted women. Second, settler universities sought to establish new links with ‘universal’ learning. By instituting new book buying and library practices, and by establishing travelling scholarship schemes and leave of absence programmes, they opened the way for scholars in Britain and the settler empire to make and maintain much more intimate relationships with each other.

At the same time settler universities developed new hiring practices that relied heavily on the private recommendations of trusted individuals in Britain. Australian universities set up appointment committees in London, and Canadian Presidents wrote to friends across the country seeking recommendations. This utilization of personalized systems of trust gave huge influence to certain professors, according them virtual power of appointment across the empire. Together with the travelling scholarships and leave-of-absence programmes already mentioned, such appointment practices helped extend abroad the informal networks at the heart of British academia.

Academics working in the colonies knew the importance of these networks. Nurturing their personal ties with colleagues in Britain helped to soften the tyranny of distance. It sped up the publication of their papers, gave them access to the latest research, and circulated information and academic gossip. It brought those working in universities in distant colonies close to the intellectual centres of ‘British’ scholarship. In fact, in many ways, the crucial role played by academic networks in British universities meant that ‘intellectual’ distance and proximity depended as much on personal connections as on regional location.

Universities in both Britain and the empire knew this. They gave official recognition to these webs of informal connection by enshrining them in statutes that gave preferential standing to each other’s degrees, and expressing them in imperial associations such as the 1903 Allied Colonial Universities Conference and the 1912 Congresses of the Universities of the British Empire. Indeed, it was at the 1912 Congress that the Universities’ Bureau was established – the progenitor of today’s Association of Commonwealth Universities.

These personal networks, and the institutional structures that supported them, mapped a ‘British academic world’ that stretched out beyond the borders of the British Isles. It was a world that included scholars working in settler colonies such as Canada and Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, but for the most part did not extend in the same way to Europe, America, India and East Asia.

This was an expansive world. It was also, however, an exclusionary one. Privileging raced and gendered forms of trust and sociability, the social and institutional practices that connected scholars in the colonies to those in Britain simultaneously sidelined the empire’s various ‘others’. Women were systematically excluded from the spaces of academic connection and its attendant opportunities, even as their work enabled the attainments of their senior male colleagues. Africans, Americans and Indians operated at the edges of British academic networks, and Europeans were only rarely admitted to them.

The First World War both exploited and enhanced these forms of academic connection. By mobilising the talents of many academics from the settler world and drawing them into the imperial capital, the conflict simultaneously strengthened the informal ties that linked British and settler scholars, creating expanded avenues for exchange in the 1920s and 30s.

But during the interwar period also came various forces that worked to erode the networks on which the British academic world depended. Settler universities began to feel the growing influence of American philanthropy, with institutions such as the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations funding numerous educational projects in the Dominions. At the same time, anti-colonial activists from Africa, the Caribbean and India – many of them based in London – challenged the forms of scientific racism that supported imperial rule. But it was the waves of refugee scholars that came to Britain in the wake of the rise of Nazism that really disrupted the mechanisms at the heart of British academic networks. Their arrival upset previous hiring customs and brought new connections and new ways of thinking. Together these contrary tendencies began to unravel the ties that held the British academic world together. Loosened further by wartime collaborations that pulled British scientists out of their Senior Common Rooms and across the Atlantic, the British academic world was finally unwound in the 1960s by the rise of nationalism in the Dominions, which re-territorialised the institutions of knowledge and repurposed the old forms of connection, turning them to new, national ends. It would not be until the 1990s, when a new phase of government reform began to dismantle these national structures and replace them with marketised mechanisms of governance that the universities in what had once been the settler colonies would again see themselves in global terms.

The ACU of 2013 is very different to the imperial body that first met a century ago. Its membership is much broader and the world of higher education in which it operates is wholly changed. But in the year of its anniversary, we would do well look to the past as we think about the personal and institutional practices that constitute ‘internationalisation’. For it is these practices, first established in the late nineteenth century, that helped to establish the uneven lines of global connection and irregular geographies of access that continue to condition higher education today.

Tamson Pietsch is lecturer in imperial and colonial history at Brunel University, London. Her book, Empire of Scholars: universities, networks and the British academic world, 1850-1939 was published by Manchester University Press in May 2013.