Archives for posts with tag: universities


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, 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.



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.

I’ve had a piece come out in Australian Studies, Vol 5 (2013) which examines the connections established by Australian universities with Britain in the era of “Victorian” globalisation.

JP Bainbridge (Registrar, University of Melbourne) UMA/I/1986

‘They do not go as strangers’: Academic connections between Australia and Britain, 1880-1939

At the end of July 1925, Alex Hill, the Secretary of the London based Universities’ Bureau of the British Empire, prepared a form letter that explained the organisation’s function:

The Bureau aims […] at doing all that might be done to promote the interests of university teachers who come to England. We are able, for example, to place them in touch with other visitors from overseas and with members of the Home Universities whom they would like to meet, to introduce them as readers in the Library of the British Museum, to secure their admission as temporary members of the Royal Colonial Institute which, with its library of 150,000 volumes and its generous supply of periodicals, offers also the amenities of a first-rate club. Visitors are asked to regard the Bureau as their Headquarters to which letters may be addressed, and at which enquiries may be made regarding travel-routes, hotels, etc.[1]

In advertising the Bureau’s services in this way, Hill was attempting to pursue the mission established for it by the First Congress of the Universities of the British Empire in 1912. This was ‘to collect University information from every part of the Empire and put it in a suitable form for easy distribution’; to act as a ‘clearing house’ for academic appointments and the interchange of staff and students, and to provide a forum for continued discussion of questions common to all universities in the Empire.[2]

Yet the reply Hill received in 1925 from the Registrar of the University of Melbourne, J.P. Bainbridge, suggests the limited extent to which—more than a decade after its inception—universities in Australia valued the Bureau’s services. Although Bainbridge thanked Hill for his ‘kind offer’ and hoped that in the future more members of the University might call into the London offices, he went on to explain that:

This country [Australia] and this University in particular is not yet (and I hope never will be) very rigidly cut off from the Old country.  Most of our Professors come from British Universities and have Home connections so that when they go to England they do not go as strangers in a strange country.[3]

Indeed, following a 1926 request from the Bureau for the University to increase its annual grant, Melbourne had responded by reducing it (to £20).[4] According to Bainbridge, in the mid-1920s the connections between universities in Britain and Australia were so strong that they did not require the mediating services of the Bureau.[5]

It is perhaps not surprising then, that the university histories produced in Australia before the Second World War all emphasise the importance of on-going academic connection with Britain. They saw the Australian universities as institutions founded as part of progressive expansion of the British people and their civilization; designed to cultivate both national and imperial citizens. Robert Dallen’s 1914 account of the University of Sydney provides a good example. It emphasised the University as both a sign and a disseminator of British civilisation in Australia and boasted of its continuing connections to old world academia.[6]

However, in the second half of the century, this portrayal of universities as part of a wider world of British scholarship shifted. University historians began to emphasise the distinctive qualities of colonial universities, to chart their departure from old world models, and to detail the achievements of their members as an important part of the story of the emergence of the independent nation. But, while they celebrated the unique qualities of local universities, many of these studies also exhibited the ‘conceptual confusion’ spoken of by Douglas Cole.[7] Emphasising the national dimension of their histories also entailed distancing these institutions from an earlier iteration of the national story – one that that had been not only Australian, but also British as well.[8] As a consequence, at the same time as they traced the successes of Australian universities and academics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these volumes also tended to portray them as derivative and lamented the dependence of their members on British scholarship.[9] They spoke of the progression of Australian graduates to British universities for further study as evidence of a ‘brain-drain’, and pointed to what they saw as the unidirectional migration of professors from Britain to Australia before the Second World War.[10] Eager to draw the boundaries of the new nation, the histories of the 1960s and 70s no longer described universities in Australia as functioning within a wider British academic system.

Yet this image of an at once dependent and distinctive Australian academic sector seems to stand at odds with the world Bainbridge described in 1925. In the context of the tightened global connections of our own age, and the emphasis universities across the world are placing on various forms of ‘internationalisation’, it is perhaps time to re-evaluate this earlier relationship between the universities of Britain and Australia.[11]

… read the rest of this piece in Australian Studies Vol 5 (2013) online


[1] Alex Hill to Bainbridge, 30 July 1925, Registrar’s Correspondence, UM312/1925/503, University of Melbourne Archives, (hereafter UMA).

[2] George Parkin (Canadian educationalist and Secretary of the Rhodes Trust) in Congress of the Universities of the Empire, 1912: Report of Proceedings, ed. Alex Hill (London, 1912), pp. 311, 323.

[3] Bainbridge to Hill, 9 Oct. 1925, UM312/1925/503, UMA.

[4]Bainbridge to the Bureau’s Treasurer, 29 Oct. 1926, UM312/1926/535, UMA.

[5]Bainbridge to the Registrar of the University of Tasmania, 19 Feb. 1932, UM312/1932/413, UMA. ‘I am afraid that we do not look upon our membership of the Bureau as being of very much practical use’, wrote Bainbridge to the Registrar to the University of Tasmania in 1932.

[6]Robert Ambrose Dallen, The University of Sydney, Its History and Progress (Sydney, 1914).

[7]Douglas Cole, ‘The Problem of ‘Nationalism’ and ‘Imperialism’ in British Settlement Colonies,’ Journal of British Studies, vol. 10 (1971), pp. 160-82; Douglas Cole, “‘the Crimson Thread of Kinship”: Ethnic Ideas in Australia, 1870-1914,’ Historical Studies, vol. 14 (1971), pp. 511-25.

[8] See James Curran and Stuart Ward, The Unknown Nation: Australia after Empire (Melbourne,, 2010).

[9]James Johnston Auchmuty, The Idea of the University in Its Australian Setting: A Historical Survey (Melbourne, 1963), p. 147; W.H. Morris-Jones and T.J. Johnson, ‘A Commonwealth of Learning,’ The Round Table, vol. 60, (1970), p. 387; R. J. W. Selleck, The Shop : The University of Melbourne, 1850-1939 (Melbourne,, 2003), p. 26; W. J. Gardner, Colonial Cap and Gown: Studies in the Mid-Victorian Universities of Australasia (Christchurch,, 1979).

[10]Geoffrey Blainey, The University of Melbourne: A Centerary Portrait (Melbourne, 1956), p. 34; Richard Symonds, Oxford and Empire: The Last Lost Cause? (London, 1986), pp. 274-76; Donald Fleming, ‘Science in Australia, Canada and the United States: Some Comparative Remarks,’ Proceedings of the Tenth International Congress of the History of Science, (Ithaca, 1964), p. x; E.T. Williams, ‘The Rhodes Scholars’ in ed. M.G. Brock and M.C. Curthoys, The History of the University of Oxford: Vol. 7, Part 2, the Nineteenth Century (Oxford, 2000), pp. 717-26; Auchmuty, The Idea of the University in Its Australian Setting: A Historical Survey, p. 146; Gardner, Colonial Cap and Gown: Studies in the Mid-Victorian Universities of Australasia, p. 10. Stuart Macintyre, however, points to the high degree of movement, both between Australian universities and between Australia and the United Kingdom, among historians in the first half of the twentieth century. Stuart Macintyre, History, the University and the Nation (London, 1992), p. 8.

[11] Among others Antoinette Burton has called for a re-examination of the concept of the nation altogether and has contested the notion of home and empire as segregated domains. Antoinette Burton, ‘Introduction: On the Inadequacy and the Indispensability of the Nation’ in ed. Antoinette Burton, After the Imperial Turn: Thinking with and through the Nation (Durham, N.C, 2003), pp. 5-6.


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