Archives for posts with tag: universities


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.

Enumeration, a Farmer Supplies Answers to the 232 Questions on the Farm Schedule, 1940 - 1941

A Q&A on my research has been published on the blog of  the European Research Area Collaborative Research Network (ERA-CRN), where you can read me waxing lyrical on such heady subjects as universities, networks, history and academic mobility.

Q1: What is the Empire of Scholars about?

At the start of the twenty-first century we are acutely conscious that universities operate within an entangled world of international scholarly connection. Empire of Scholars examines the networks that linked academics in Britain and the settler world in the age of ‘Victorian globalisation’. It argues that in the 1880s universities in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa began to look for new ways to connect with ‘universal’ scholarship, instituting travelling scholarship schemes, leave of absence programmes, and appointment practices that enabled academics working in the colonies to forge and maintain close personal and informal ties with their colleagues in Britain. These networks became crucial to the way that universities in Britain and the settler world operated, and to the making of knowledge in them, helping to map a ‘British academic world’ that extended far beyond the borders of the British Isles. But although it was expansive, this was a world that was also highly raced and gendered – excluding women, scholars of colour, and according only a minor place to Europeans and Americans. When we think about the global world of universities in the twenty-first century, we need to pay close attention to these informal, expansive, and exclusionary networks, for they helped shape the uneven geographies that condition higher education today.

Q2: What got you started on this line of research?

In retrospect the germ of this book was sown when I was an undergraduate at the University of Adelaide. In the seminar room there, fading photographs of past history professors adorned the walls and written after all their names were the letters M.A. (Oxon). I cannot have been anything but dimly aware of this at the time, however, when some years later their path to Oxford was one that I too followed, I began to wonder.  Beginning my doctoral studies, I had wanted to write about ideas. I wanted to know what they meant to people, where they came from, and how they got made, particularly in the context of the British Empire. But aware of my own passage to Oxford, and with the Adelaide professors still staring down at me, it seemed impossible to do this without thinking about the people who made knowledge, and the institutional structures and contexts that made them. I realised that before I could write about ideas I needed to know a lot more about the worlds that produced them – and academia seemed an obvious place to begin. So Empire of Scholars is in many ways about the unequal social and material conditions that underpin the making of ideas. It is my attempt to understand the system of which I am part, the traces it has left upon me, and the disparities that continue to characterise it.

Q3: What has been the most surprising finding for you in researching Empire of Scholars?

I was surprised by just how connected colonial scholars of the 19th and early 20th century were to British academia. I had grown up with the idea of the ‘tyranny of distance’ combined with a form of cultural cringe which saw academics who migrated as second class scholars who couldn’t make it in Britain. But this was not the story I found in the archives. Many of the academics who took up posts in settler universities were prize-winning students who were attracted by the opportunities and conditions of professorial posts in a range of disciplines that had not yet established themselves in British institutions. Moreover, utilising their personal networks, they stayed in close touch with academia in Britain, sending their students back, visiting frequently, publishing in British journals, and also in many cases being later appointed to senior posts. I realised we need to think in new ways about the way distance worked in the past.

Q4: How has this research contributed to your knowledge about the role of academics, higher education and universities in society and politics?

My research on universities in the late 19th and 20th centuries – a period of increasing global connection, in which universities struggled to adapt themselves to new kinds of knowledge and technology – has influenced the way I understand today’s higher education sector. It’s helped me realise that the knowledge economy is not just a product of twenty-first century globalisation. Its origins lie in the cross-border intellectual alignments that developed along the routes of global empire and trade in this earlier period. The questions they asked (about legitimacy, internationalization, the purpose of a university, and access to name a few) remain equally pertinent in the rapidly shifting world of higher education today. Thinking historically about universities has also shown me that universities have always been in the process of change. They have always been engaged in a dynamic relationship with the local and the global. Thinking historically, therefore, might both help us think deeply about the role institutions such as universities play in societies, while at the same time guarding us against nostalgic appeals to a non-existent golden age. I have brought these perspectives to my writing about higher education policy for the Guardian Higher Education Network, the Times Higher Education magazine, The Conversation UK, and on my blog: Cap and Gown.

Q5: Does this relate to your current research interests and how?

I am developing my research in two new directions, both of which examine the relationship between mobility, knowledge and higher education that I first considered in Empire of Scholars. First, as part of my ARC DECRA project at the University of Sydney (‘Global Republics: universities and the origins of the knowledge economy’) I will explore the ways digital technologies might be used to map the global spaces of intellectual production and exchange forged by the transnational connections of scholars in the twentieth century. Second, I am also working on a project that examines ‘global education’ in the interwar period. It focuses on the 1926 ‘Floating University’ – a ‘round the world educational cruise’ that saw the moving space of the ship as one in which students could be educated to be citizens of the world.

Q6: What advice do you have for those interested in researching higher education (the role of academics and universities) in modern times and also in different parts of the world?

I have found it useful to pay attention not just to what higher education practitioners and institutions say about themselves, but also to what they do – to their practices. Academics are often strangely reluctant to turn their critical eye upon themselves, and yet it seems to me extremely important that they do so. Thinking historically about universities is powerful in this regard – it shows us that they are institutions that have always changed, it points to the social and political roles they have filled and tells us a lot about from where their legitimacy has come.

About Tamson Pietsch: ‘I completed my undergraduate studies at the University of Adelaide in Australia, before working in academic publishing and then as an Aide and speech-writer for the Governor of Victoria. Awarded a Rhodes Scholarship in 2003, I travelled to the University of Oxford where I completed my DPhil and went on to hold the Sir Christopher Cox Junior Fellowship at New College and teach as Lecturer in Modern History at Corpus Christi College. I joined Brunel University in 2011 as Lecturer in Imperial and Colonial History. From July 2013 until September 2016 I will be on research leave, as ARC DECRA Fellow at the University of Sydney.’

… read the Q&A on the ERA-CRN blog.


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