Making the case for higher education

Melbourne is the world’s most liveable city and a thriving global centre of tertiary education. But articulating the value of tertiary education seems harder than ever before.

At a glance there is plenty of evidence. The city is ranked number two as the best student city, and number five taking research into account. Melbourne is home to upwards of 250,000 tertiary students. International education is the largest export industry in the state and in 2015 it contributed over A$5 billion (US$3.7 billion) to the economy and supported around 40,000 jobs.

The city has a growing concentration of dynamic education and research institutions. The nine comprehensive research universities contribute landmark insights and engage diverse facets of community life.

It is obvious that tertiary education is creating the careers of the future, engaging international students and making Melbourne global. But what is fuelling Melbourne’s success provokes broader questions.

What public value does tertiary education contribute? What can tertiary institutions do to create a city’s future capabilities, infrastructure and resources? How does ‘place’ blend with other ingredients of successful tertiary culture? How do culture and cash create communities which challenge new forms of thinking and production?

Banging the drum for higher education

These and other questions will be probed in a Melbourne Town Hall Public Seminar on Monday 28 November. This open public discussion with six diverse panellists – a former premier of Victoria, a corporate executive, a cultural entrepreneur, a vice-chancellor, a government senior official and an award-winning cancer researcher who immigrated from Myanmar – will play out in the heart of the city about one of its biggest yet least overt businesses.

In essence: What has accelerated one of Australia’s large cities into one of the world’s most auspicious education cities?

Clearly, this ‘secret sauce’ question is not easy to answer. Travelling around the world, it is not uncommon to hear other cities opine about how they might become more creative. University executives everywhere fret over how best to leverage benefit from research or education collaboration with different people across the world.

Tertiary researchers have developed ‘Global University City Indices’ and studied the contribution of tertiary education to regions. Culture thrives in the most eccentric places despite the colonising efforts of architects, capitalists and sheikhs.

Tertiary value is about more than money and includes people, places and ideas. Imagine three big overlapping circles. One circle embraces dialogue about cities and spaces, another about tertiary education and the third about global culture. Each circle spawns its own communities and economies, creating knowledge, buildings and relationships.

Experts, artists, policy-makers and citizens alike spend a lifetime in any one of these worlds. But how best can we articulate their intersection? Or as a corny researcher might formulate: “What is left over after the world’s biggest regression equation has rung all mathematical value into a formulaic answer?”

Tertiary institutions play a role. They attract creative types, fund problem solving, train professional workers, shepherd freedoms, set fashions, craft ideas, corral arguments, envelop inconsistencies and moderate subversion. Cities are not insignificant. While only costed on the macro economists’ balance sheet, cafes, theatres, parks and clean air play a formative role in generating value.

And what about culture? Even the most highly refined people continually genuflect to ambiguity in this regard. Beaches, mountains, wineries doubtless play a role, as do the more human inventions like theatres, galleries, burlesque tents and bars.

Building smart societies

So, why do certain cities across the globe prosper while others flail? What juice should be sapped to distil the elan vital of tertiary culture for the future? What should Melbourne do to position best for its forecast nine-fold increase to one million international students over the next decade.

To further expand the conduits that seed education and innovation, new infrastructure and capability is required. Melbourne will need to further capitalise on its position as a predominantly Anglophone city in Asia. With just a 12-hour flight it is possible to land in most of the world’s biggest tertiary education systems.

Asia is already the world’s biggest higher education time zone, with even more dynamite R&D growth to come. Partnering with other sectors will be essential, particularly as tertiary education moves even more into the centre of the socio-economic stage. Of course, giving people the freedom to create and grow is the bedrock of any such transformation.

There is no single or simple answer to many of the questions posed above. In itself, this renders even more important open public discussions about tertiary education and its role in building smart societies for the future.

Professor Hamish Coates is professor of higher education and Dr Gwilym Croucher is a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne, Australia.