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Political biographer Chris Wallace, former teacher GJ Stroud, journalist Ann Arnold and academic Tamson Pietsch join Griffith Review editor Julianne Schultz in a spirited discussion at how our institutions – political, social and legal – both support and fail us, and what we can do about it.

THIS SYDNEY IDEAS LECTURE TOOK PLACE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY ON 25 FEBRUARY, 2016.

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This piece was published by The Conversation, 29 May 2015

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.

While the sector speaks of itself in dollar terms, universities are keen to emphasise the economic benefits of study to individual students. Graduates, according to Adelaide University, are more likely to get a job, and those with a degree receive a “substantial wage premium over non-graduates”.

Advertisements like the “Self Made” campaign from RMITplace the individual student at the centre of the story. They portray study as a personal investment of time and money, the benefits of which accrue to the individual. The consequence of this is that – factoring in all costs, loan repayments and interest rate rises – it is possible to calculate the net monetary benefit of higher education to an individual over a lifetime. The Grattan Institute puts it at about A$100,000.

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.

Silicon Valley certainly thinks the experience of living, studying and playing together plays a much greater role in business success than the curriculum does.

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.

RMS Lusitania 1910

In the spring of 2013, the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) commissioned a report to help university leaders think about the future of higher education. In response, Adam Nelson (Professor, Educational Policy Studies and History, University of Wisconsin-Madison) convened a group of historians from around the world (including me!) to consider how universities in the past had responded to major periods of change. Specifically, he asked each of us to write a brief essay identifying a “key moment” in the internationalization of higher education: a moment when universities responded to new historical circumstances by reorienting their relationship with the broader world. My contribution to the commissioned report is below, but you can read the other essays online at InsideHigherEd or download the pdf version at Kris Old’s and Susan Robertson’s GlobalHigherEd.

The 1880s: Global Connections and the British Settler Universities

Tamson Pietsch, Brunel University 

To a visitor from Britain, the original buildings of many of the universities established in the middle of the nineteenth century in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa appear reassuringly familiar. With ivied cloisters and neo-gothic edifices, they seem to stand as tangible signs of the exportation of old world traditions to the new.

But it would be a mistake to see these early settler universities as little more than transported institutions. They were not set up by British officials, as in India and later Africa, but rather by self-confident local elites who saw them as both symbols and disseminators of European civilisation in the colonies. Providing a classical and liberal (and often religious) education, these institutions were designed to cultivate both the morals and the minds of the young men who would lead colonial societies. Presuming the universality and superiority of ‘Western’ culture, they 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. Fashioned by colonial politics and frequently funded by the state, in their early years, these ‘settler’ universities were very much local affairs.

However, in the 1870s the established relationship between culture and power had begun to change. On one hand, imperial expansion and revolutions in transport and communication and science were expanding the content and social function of ‘universal’ culture. On the other, in the context of an expansive franchise, local settler communities were beginning to demand that the universities they were financially supporting should be more than cultural incubators of a narrow elite. Still struggling for student numbers, settler universities could not afford to ignore these demands. To survive, they needed to find new ways to re-assert their position as cultural institutions that straddled the local and the global. They did so in two ways.

First, settler universities reconfigured their relationship with their local communities. They expanded their educational constituencies by widening their curricula and by expanding their franchise to include women and the middle classes – often doing so well in advance of universities in the United Kingdom (UK). From the 1880s students at Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, and New Zealand could take degrees in pure and applied science, and by the 1890s schools of law and medicine were flourishing in institutions across Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand. At the turn of the century this provision widened further to include engineering, veterinary science, dentistry, agriculture, architecture, education and commerce. Women began to be admitted in the same period, and universities’ active involvement in the extension of public primary and secondary schooling also opened the way to entry for many more members of the middle classes. In these ways, settler universities shored up their local legitimacy.

Second, settler universities renegotiated their relationship to ‘universal’ scholarship. Unlike the largely static classical curriculum, scientific research was a dynamic and rapidly expanding field of study. If they were to sustain their claim to be credentialisers of knowledge, settler universities also had to find new ways to demonstrate their connection and contribution to this new branch of ‘global’ knowledge.

They did so by ‘internationalising’ some of the structures of knowledge in the colonies. First, they improved access to intellectual resources, through expanding library provision and increasing their investment in foreign publications. Second, they sought to improve the mobility of their staff and students by establishing travelling scholarship schemes and leave of absence (sabbatical) programmes that carried them abroad. Third, they developed new practices for the recruitment of staff which relied heavily on the private recommendations of trusted individuals in Britain: Australian universities set up appointment committees in London, and Canadian university presidents wrote to friends across the UK seeking recommendations. Such appointment practices helped to foster close connections between academics in Britain and the colonies, tying settler universities into the informal networks at the heart of the British university system.

Together, these innovations worked to connect previously locally-oriented colonial institutions into a wider world of academic scholarship. They reconfigured the relationship between academic knowledge and location, creating measures of proximity and distance that depended on personal connections as well as territorial location.

However, the academic ‘world’ created by the long-distance connections these changes brought about was nonetheless still a limited one. Despite their intellectual engagement with ‘foreign’ ideas – despite their purchase of European journals and notwithstanding professorial trips to Berlin and Leipzig and sometimes the United States – it was primarily to Britain that scholars and students from settler universities gravitated. The reach of their personal ties and the routes of their repeated migrations thus mapped not a ‘universal’ but rather a ‘British’ academic world that expanded to include 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. Indeed, from the 1880s on, universities in both Britain and the empire began to enshrine this world in statutes that gave preferential standing to each other’s degrees, and to express it in imperial associations and congresses that at once proclaimed and reinforced its existence.

Settler universities responded to the challenges presented by the intensified global connections of the late nineteenth century by reasserting their position as local institutions that credentialised ‘universal’ knowledge. In many ways they were successful – the position of institutions such as McGill, Toronto, Sydney, Melbourne, and the University of Cape Town is in no small part due to the innovations of the 1880s. But by creating structures that enabled and encouraged personal connections with British scholars, settler universities also helped establish the uneven lines of global connection and irregular geographies of access that continue to condition these institutions today.

Read the rest of the report at InsideHigherEd or download the pdf version at this link. And if you still want more, check out Empire of scholars: universities, networks and the British academic world, 1850-1939.