Archives for posts with tag: universities

Breeder and Sportsman 1907

The Association of Commonwealth Universities has launched a new blog series to explore the outcomes of international scholarship schemes for higher education, and they asked me to write their first post.  Called “Measuring success?” the question mark in the title the ACU has given to the series well encapsulates both the lack of quantitive research in this field, and the uncertainty about how to measure the effects of such programmes. The international experience generated by overseas study can have profound effects on individual lives, but identifying causation is much more difficult not least because the impacts of such experience may take decades to manifest. Historical methods are therefore essential.

Since 2014 I have been working with Meng-Hsuan Chou (from NTU Singapore) on a longitudinal analysis of the careers of Rhodes Scholars across the 20th century, and this invitation from the ACU gives me an opportunity to introduce some of the results of this research. (You can also find the ACU blog post here.)

Geographical mobility and the Rhodes Scholarships across the 20th century

Founded in 1901, the Rhodes Scholarships scheme is one of the longest running programmes of scholarly exchange still in existence and has served as a model for many schemes that have since emerged. As such it offers an ideal context for examining, as well as raising new questions about, the organisation and overall efficacy of scholarship programmes across the twentieth century.

The Rhodes Trust brought students to Oxford on scholarships, envisioning (although never officially stipulating) that these students would later return to their home countries and take up public leadership positions. How far this has actually been the pattern of Rhodes Scholars’ careers has not, however, yet been systematically examined.

As part of a larger project on the long-term effects of scholarly mobility, Meng-Hsuan Chou (NTU Singapore) and I have been using data published by the Rhodes Trust to measure various outcomes of the Rhodes Scholarships across the twentieth century. Our study is beginning to reveal some striking patterns about the geographic mobility of awardees.

Tracking post-scholarship careers data

Tracking the post-scholarship careers of Rhodes Scholars across all regional constituencies at intervals of ten years between 1913 and 1983, we generated a dataset of 487 scholars with full information on 483. Using the recorded locations of their employment and post-programme study as proxies for geographical mobility, we developed three indicators to make sense of their movements:

a) Those who made their careers at home (jobs were based in the countries of election);
b) Those who made their careers both at home and abroad;
c) Those who principally made their careers outside their country of election.

It was immediately obvious to us that the majority of scholars in the years analysed established their careers in their countries of election, with more than 75% of all cohorts for all coded years making their careers at home, or both at home and abroad. Scholars who established their careers outside of their countries of election, were generally in the minority (around 20-25% of each cohort). However, since 1913 it is evident that the percentage of scholars in this category has been steadily increasing. We believe it is likely that more recent cohorts, especially those from the late 1990s onwards, may have greater geographical mobility patterns than earlier cohorts. This is borne out by the biographic profiles of living scholars recently collated by the Rhodes Trust.

One of the difficulties with this aggregated data is that it collapses the particular local and cultural contexts that shape patterns in different countries. To provide more fine-grained differentiation, we have disaggregated the geographical mobility patterns of Rhodes Scholars who have been elected from the US (a dominant cohort, constituting 35-50% of scholars in any one year) in comparison to those who were from other regions. These initially included the ‘settler colonies’ of Southern Africa, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Bermuda, Jamaica and Germany; but after the Second World War they were widened to include India and Pakistan, and a few other countries in Africa and South East Asia, and for a time also Europe. (In the last year the Rhodes Trust has expanded the constituencies of award further to include China, but this is outside the range of our data.)

Patterns in the data

Our analysis has revealed some striking patterns.

First, across all decades Rhodes scholars from the USA have been more likely (about twice as likely) to establish their careers principally at home than their counterparts from other regions. More than 80% of American scholars in all periods returned to the USA after their time at Oxford and never again lived or studied abroad.

Second, and by contrast, overseas experience was highly significant to the careers of non-US Rhodes scholars. For example, while 80% of scholars elected from the US in 1923 built their careers exclusively at home, 70% of scholars from non-US constituencies made time outside their country of origin a part of their post-Oxford career, with nearly 40% basing themselves permanently abroad. For the 1913 cohort the percentage who spent some time abroad after Oxford was approximately 45%, in 1933, 1953 and 1963 it was just over 50% (in 1943 only one student was elected), dropping to about 35% in 1973, before returning to just over 50% in 1983.

Third, the relatively high mobility (compared to other decades) of Non-US scholars elected in 1923 points to the danger of telling a linear story of increasing mobility across the twentieth century. Scholars who made their careers before and after the Second World War were much more likely to have overseas experience than those later in the century.

Our initial findings clearly show that awardees from different constituencies have used the Rhodes experience differently in the establishment and consolidation of their professional careers. While US Scholars have utilised it as a platform to pursue a variety of careers principally at home, non-US Scholars have employed the Rhodes programme as a spring-board to careers outside their home countries. Even our relatively crude disaggregation of US and non-US scholars points to the need to undertake granulated analyses that attend to regional and national context and to patterns of change over time.

We would caution, however, against making assumptions between these patterns and the notion of ‘brain drain’. As several recent studies in other contexts have shown, this concept is likely to oversimplify the relationship Rhodes scholars have with their countries. I have demonstrated elsewhere that Rhodes scholars who were academics maintained strong ties with their home countries, supervising the next generation of leaders and scholars from their countries of origin by hosting their stay abroad (see Pietsch, 2013). These types of impact are only beginning to be discussed in the literature on scholarly mobility. The importance of such intergenerational networks might also be considered in other professional contexts, notably medicine or management consulting. In these instances, rather than acting as the source of ‘brain drain’, Rhodes Scholars who have made their careers outside their countries of origin have nonetheless still contributed to knowledge mobility and ‘brain circulation’ – factors that are usually considered to sit at the heart of national innovation.

Tamson Pietsch is an ARC DECRA Fellow at the University of Sydney and the author of Empire of Scholars: universities, networks and the British academic world, 1850-1939 (Manchester, 2013). Part of her research with Meng-Hsuan Chou on the Rhodes scholarships will appear in Giles Scott Smith and Ludovic Tournès ed., Global Exchanges: Scholarship and Transnational Circulations in the Contemporary World, (Berghahn, 2016).


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.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 145 other followers