Every now and then society has a crisis of confidence. For centuries countries across the world have been investing in universities. The passion for knowledge, progress and solving the global challenges that face our world unites us. Somewhat oddly, a few western countries, but not our colleagues in the east, appear to be asking if it’s really worth continuing to invest in these international Towers of Babel?

It’s partly because universities have become more expensive to governments and to students.

There are two reasons for this.

Firstly, our research costs are higher now – big telescopes, super computers, colliders, tunnelling, scanning, tickling microscopes, and vaccine development labs, cost more than simple test tubes, Bunsen burners and petri dishes. I’ve heard these called “sophistication costs”.

Secondly, teaching has become more expensive too. In part, this is also due to “sophistication costs” – online teaching systems are more expensive than chalk and blackboards. But the main increase in government funding relates to the happy fact that more people have the opportunity to attend university. When only one percent of young people (possibly the wealthier one percent) went, the total costs were smaller. Now with up to half of all school leavers going, the costs are higher.

But building towers of knowledge that allow us to see further, and educating our populations, and sharing international understanding by teaching students from across the world here in Australia really is worth it.

The knowledge that universities create and transmit serves society. This is undeniable when one thinks of corona virus – having expert doctors who can directly save lives by supporting patients on ventilators, experts who can build ventilators or develop vaccines, and generally having highly qualified professionals is critical. It is important to have experts to create or just take up global know-how.

This is what I think economists call “human capital.” But what about all the non-professionals, those who didn’t do medical degrees but picked up broad knowledge that isn’t as obviously transferable. What about people who studied humanities, like most of our political leaders?

Their knowledge also contributes to the vast edifice of information that underpins a modern society. Keeping our extraordinarily complicated civilisation operating properly clearly requires high levels of competence in many, many areas of expertise. I think most people would agree that a culture of high quality expertise built on knowledge is useful. I can’t imagine Singapore or China being tricked by a few trolls on Twitter to stop investing in universities, nor will Switzerland or Germany move that way. Nor will the best people in Australia collude to run down our universities.

Part of the contribution universities make relates to the destination – the “getting of expert knowledge” (human capital) but perhaps the bigger part, and the reason why it’s good that more and more school leavers are going to university relates to the journey, the “getting of wisdom,” and sense of belonging that develops along the way. This wisdom develops irrespective of which syllabus/course students study. It is this wisdom and trust that holds society together.

One example of this is coming to appreciate from direct personal experience that focussed work within a good learning community is rewarding.

I’m a big fan of the “delayed gratification” ideas of child psychologists like Piaget and Mischel. They explained how very young children when offered one chocolate, but told they could have two if they waited an hour, were unable to wait. But older children – who had matured enough to trust the system – could wait and reap the rewards.

The key thing is that it takes time to grow to trust the community. Formal university education at a time of life when young people are fledging the nest provides evidence that societal systems can work and can make life better for everyone. In good societies cooperation and hard work are rewarded and undergraduates learn this as they study the history of their disciplines but they also learn it at a personal level by osmosis as they study. Learning about the past, and experiencing how hard work delivers in the present, helps everyone to appreciate the importance of investing for the future. Learning alongside international students help people see that we can all work together.

Does this mean that our universities train students in civic duty, compliance and obedience? Not really. Most universities just encourage independent thought, innovative thinking and criticism. This critical thinking capacity is what will help society as we encounter new and different problems in the future. Universities don’t indoctrinate students to left wing or right wing ideas but students mature in terms of their thinking skills, and with respect to how they view cooperative societies, and their investments and potential future roles in those societies.

I don’t want to be grand and suggest that universities are the only players that can contribute to building the capacity, cohesiveness and the future vision of a global society. But universities do make a big contribution today. Over time the military, the church, the gilds, the judiciary, the government, and cultural leaders have all helped shape societal narratives but today our universities play a systematic role. I wonder if this is one of the reasons that universities appear to be coming under attack – is it that a few people worry universities are becoming too powerful?

Recently, progress towards a better society seems to be slowing, society seems to be fragmenting, and like the people of Babel, one wonders if we’ll be divided into different factions and will abandon the common cause. Social media seems to simplify and to polarise, dividing rather than uniting people around human narratives.

But part of me remains optimistic. Social media is not the world or our only narrative. Knowledge keeps growing and being shared, by universities and others. Perhaps novels are being read less but other media – films, Netflix series, music, and podcasts (not to mention blogs) – are thriving. Many productions are dripping with knowledge, values and often also with complex and challenging ideas that build critical thinking. Beyond that more and more young people are participating in higher education. It is this increased participation that is most important and will be instrumental in the coherence of society. Graduates have a lot to gain and a lot to lose depending on how the future unfolds.

The shared experiences of undergraduates, from across the world, will help different cultures to understand each other and work together towards a better future. And along with human understanding new knowledge will come. Each new grain of knowledge once formed can never be destroyed and if we are careful we can fit each new brick into this tower of Babel and keep making the world better until we do eventually reach heaven. It’s just important to be inclusive, rather than divisive, and hopefully this time no one will divide us and interfere with the tower building.

Professor Merlin Crossley

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic



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