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The Republic of Learning: Why Backing Universities is a Vital Challenge for Policymakers

Occidental College where Barack Obama studied

Education for breadth, or the liberal arts approach, is clearly becoming more readily recognizable in universities everywhere.

In the United States, in fact, liberal arts colleges, like Occidental College in Los Angeles where Barak Obama earned his first degree, have been familiar features of the educational landscape for centuries.

But education for breadth is now becoming better known and better appreciated, in the UK and Australia as well.

Another institution which is moving strongly into liberal arts is University College London. UCL wants students in their new flagship degree to have qualification in both a science and an art subject on entry, and will oblige every student to study a foreign language in each year of their degree, as well as encouraging students to spend a year abroad.

The educational philosophy behind UCL’s approach can be summed up as a commitment to “global citizenship.”

Global citizenship, famously, was a notion first articulated by the Renaissance scholar Erasmus, who wrote to a friend in 1522: “ego mundi civis esse cupio – I should like to be a citizen of the world.”

Erasmus was part of a group known to history as ‘the republic of letters’. The term was drawn from respublica litteraria, which might translate as ‘commonwealth of learning’ or perhaps ‘commonwealth of scholars’ — a group of people who saw themselves as intellectual equals, committed to sharing knowledge.

Armed with new thinking, and the new communications technology of the printing press, Erasmus and his contemporaries aspired to be citizens of the world.

By circulating their letters and books to sympathetic audiences, by discussing new ideas and developing a critical apparatus for assessing claims to knowledge, these leading thinkers in Europe created a conversation outside the usual constraints of nationality and censorship.

The republic of letters encouraged the universities of the day to become lively, questioning institutions, concerned less with arid abstract contemplation and more with how we should live. They created self-conscious communities where students and scholars explored new learning, operating through formal rules that encouraged argument, evidence and controversy and became, in time, the basis of scientific method.

Five hundred years later there is a new exchange underway, once again across borders and languages, a sharing of ideas and people on an unprecedented scale. It is the modern world of higher education – what I call the republic of learning.
The original republic of letters saw a handful of intellectuals converse through languages understood by just a miniscule proportion of the population, produced on hand-operated printing presses. By contrast, today’s republic of learning is vast in scale, with a membership in the hundreds of millions.

No longer donkeys and round-bottomed ships to transport scholars and their books at sailing pace.

No longer languages of the few — Latin and Greek — but English, Spanish and Mandarin, in a global society aspiring to worldwide literacy.

For handwritten letters that took weeks to arrive, now the immediacy of email.

For Gutenberg’s press and moveable type, now the internet and personal computers: whole libraries, compressed centuries of learning, available instantly.

This republic of learning spans the planet, shaping every nation including our own.

In Australia going to university, once unusual, has become a standard expectation for young people. More than a million Australian and international students study this year in our university system, and nearly twice that number again in vocational and technical education.

In many metropolitan and regional centres, universities and technical colleges are the largest local employers — sometimes rivalled only by hospitals, themselves often allied to university medical schools.

The knowledge and the skills provided by higher learning help drive the extraordinary increases in wealth many nations have enjoyed in recent decades. Graduates locate minerals in remote regions, staff advanced medical services in cities, design urban and rural transport networks, spin the wheels of finance, advise government ministers, regulate industries, analyse social trends, produce the movies, theatre, television, books and small magazines that trace the national preoccupations of communities everywhere.

Researchers in our republic of learning discover new knowledge, opening further possibilities for humanity. From advances in health that improve life expectancy to insights in political economy that encourage more affluent and socially just societies, from inventions in information technology to speed up global communications, to the insights of climate scientists that might just prove crucial for survival on this planet, university research contributes to understanding and innovation.

Higher learning gives us the human capital to ensure future prosperity — and the cultural capital to find greater meaning in our lives.

This enthusiastic involvement in the republic of learning is replicated across the world. A handful of humanists in the time of Erasmus has grown to more than 150 million higher education students and staff worldwide.

The small flocks of adventurous scholars making intellectual pilgrimages between England, Italy, France and the German states have become around 3.5 million students travelling abroad to study every year.

This new global reality gives students unprecedented opportunities to study in other places, to mix with people from different cultures, to rise above the surly bonds of place — to do what learning does best: allow us each to break the narrow prison of self and understand worlds beyond our direct experience.

The expansion of higher education — this republic of learning — makes knowledge available to an audience wider than any previously imagined. It encourages global mobility of people and ideas.

One by-product is a huge world trade in higher education, worth more than $35 billion a year in English-speaking countries alone.

And who guessed Australia would prove among the most successful providers of higher education in the world? Despite our small number of institutions, some 7 per cent of the world’s international students choose to study in Australia. They find quality universities, welcoming cities and truly international campuses: with one in five students at every Australian university drawn from overseas, we host the most internationalised higher education system in the world.

Whether these international students ultimately return home or stay to make a life in Australia, they engage with our nation and carry that experience through their lives. The benefits for our nation are vast, if intangible. At a meeting once in Kuala Lumpur with Malaysian ministers, I asked everyone about their education, and was pleasantly surprised to discover a majority were graduates of an Australian university — and inclined hopefully, to warm and closer relations between our nations.

Few appreciate just how much Australia’s current prosperity rests on this new export industry called education. International students spend $3.7 billion every year at Australia’s thirty-seven public and two private universities.

For every dollar an international student invests in learning, they spend another two on services, accommodation, food and entertainment while living in Australia. There are businesses and families across this land, far from the world of education, whose livelihood and prospects depend on the global trade in education. For them, Australia rides on the scholar’s back.

Visionaries and reformers talked for decades about opening up our once insular, provincial, protectionist and ‘lucky’ island nation. Higher education has proved a big part of that change. It happened quickly. Hardly anyone noticed at first. Yet look around and see its mighty works.

The flow of students has made Australia a global destination. The most recent RMIT index, measuring the world’s most lively, diverse and intellectually vibrant urban centres, ranks London, Boston and Tokyo the great international cities — followed immediately by Melbourne and Sydney, significantly ahead of Paris, New York, Berlin and Hong Kong.

As we debate population matters, we should be careful to keep this precious new knowledge industry strong. The invisible hand of student spending shapes our cities, brings the world to our table, keeps Australia affluent, connected — and young.

The traffic flows both ways. Thousands of young Australians experience study abroad as part of their university courses, sharpening their languages skills, developing empathy for the cultures of Asia and beyond, building links that will serve through their lives.

In any week, Australian alumni will gather somewhere — lawyers in Shanghai, accountants in London, artists in Singapore, marine biologists in San Diego. Those graduates are harbingers of an emerging Australia, at home in the world and our region. It is far more difficult to maintain a closed society when so many of the leaders have wider horizons.

Look at the faces in the street, the lecture hall, the library — students who study in large public universities and numerous private colleges, who live around their campus, who bring youth and vitality to our cities. Drawn from everywhere, international students help create, and enjoy, the diverse, tolerant, enriched society Australia has long promised. These young people are our single largest source of new citizens. They are the generation that will in time make our society truly global.

The benefits are more than economic. What happens in our universities helps us live longer, reduces the tyrannies of distance and time, provides insight into the nature of the universe itself. Thanks to higher education, we live in an era once described by a character in Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia – when the door is kicked open, and a new world revealed.

Today as 500 years ago, higher learning offers an attractive and realistic pathway to a different and better world: this time not for a small group of scholars, but for populations and communities all around the planet. In today’s world universities, while serving many purposes and not all of them perfect institutions, are certainly symbols of what many people and many communities aspire to, not only materially but personally and spiritually.

What excites me about higher education today is the potential it offers for positive social change. We can see this nationally and globally. It’s a difficult goal to achieve, but the Australian government wants to see 40 per cent of young people enrolling in higher education, with a special emphasis on those from lower income backgrounds. If achieved, this could be transformational for the nation, and particularly those communities currently remote from engagement in university life, and under-represented in professions.

Clearly, those international students and their families who make extraordinary sacrifices to study at university are strongly motivated by the thought of what education can do to build better lives. If we believe in positive change, supporting this vast social project called higher education is a natural goal for policy-makers to pursue.

I am particularly impressed by the sacrifices made by many families in Asia to support their children through university education, often at great cost. This is an example of people putting great value on education: an example from which many Australians can learn.

This leads me back to the fundamental questions about education with which I began. Education at many universities today, including my own, is increasingly about the multidisciplinary idea: learning not only from one perspective, but from many.

This is an old ideal but seems to be gathering new momentum. In fact, liberal education – the idea of training across several disciplines, to ask the big questions of life, to prepare for flexibility in careers and to think like a citizen of the world – has long been a part of many university systems.

For example one of the most positive things about higher education in Australia, and other countries today is the growing interest in education for breadth both amongst students and course providers. Melbourne, as you know, initiated the Melbourne Model five years ago, and UWA is adopting a similar approach: broader undergraduate degrees, with high quality professional courses including law and medicine at postgraduate level. But these are just two universities. One of the virtues of an expanding sector is that room exists for both liberal and professional degrees. It’s my view that Australia’s 39 universities will do their best, within the constraints of government policy, to supply the varied choices of both kinds, that students clearly want today.

If we have to sum up the point of a liberal education, it might be, as philosopher Martha Nussbaum puts it, to create “world citizens”; i.e. people who possess a capacity for sympathetic imagination, enabling us to comprehend the motives and choices of people different from ourselves – seeing them not as forbiddingly alien and other but as sharing many problems and possibilities with us.

This is a vision to create future graduates who will gladly and effectively work with their fellow human beings everywhere, to the betterment of the world. It is an appealing vision.

Thanks to the exciting changes underway at UWA, students in Perth will now have the opportunity to experience the sort of education where you can ask the big questions, and take time to think about the answers. This does not clash with the objectives of a professional degree – but it adds to the quality of the graduate. Through the Melbourne Model, the University of Melbourne is doing the same.

Empowering universities to offer all they can to future generations of every nation is vital for the world.

About Professor Glyn Davis

Professor Glyn Davis
Professor Glyn Davis has been Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Melbourne since January 2005, and is Professor of Political Science in the Faculty of Arts. Professor Davis is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, a Companion in the Order of Australia and a Director of the Melbourne Theatre Company.

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