Address at the World University President’s Symposium, Peking University, Beijing

First my congratulations to Peking University on this 120-year anniversary. It is a pleasure to be here and part of the celebrations.

Peking University has made an enormous contribution to China and globally as a great example of education generally and higher education specifically are at the heart of all successful societies.

At their best, universities are not about learning, or innovation, or creativity or culture or wealth creation - but are about all of those things and much more in the service of society. The famous quote from Confucius puts this well:

“Education breeds confidence. Confidence breeds hope. Hope breeds peace.”

This reminds us that the contribution of universities is broad and spans the spectrum of society’s needs – political, cultural, creative, innovative and economic.

One output is undoubtedly prosperity. In a 2016 paper, Economists Anna Valero and John van Reenan looked at the economic impact of universities in over 1,500 regions in 78 countries since 1950. They reported that doubling the number of universities is associated with over 4% higher GDP per capita in a region, with ‘spill over’ to its surrounds.

Editor of Times Higher Education, John Gill, noted that the striking aspect of the analysis was the apparent causal relationship between historical periods of university expansion and specific periods of economic growth.

Historically, universities were the driving force for the commercial and industrial revolutions, whether by the development of legal institutions or their role in the building of knowledge and its propagation.

In the UK, the US and France, for example, the respective expansion of universities in the 1800s coincided with each country’s industrialisation timetable.

Today, we are witnessing the expansion of universities, in real time, alongside extraordinary pace of developments in China and now in India.

China’s incredible rise to second largest economy in the world over the last 30 years aligns with the rapid expansion of its university sector – the teaching and research quality of which can independently secure a nation’s future economic strength.

The Chinese Government has acknowledged the role of education in improving quality of life for hundreds of millions of people in this country. And as it honours its pledge to eradicate poverty by 2020, even greater tertiary participation rates and investment in higher education will be a key ingredient of success.

Likewise, the Indian Government believes that education is a pillar of future economic expansion. A target of gross tertiary enrolment rates of 30% by 2020 means 40 million university places per annum, representing an increase of 2 million places in the system every year.

In Australia, universities offer significant return on government investment. They contribute AUD $140 billion to the economy through the impact of skilled graduates, while the impact of university research on knowledge and technology contributes another AUD $160 billion or 10% of Australia’s national GDP.

At the same time, international education is Australia’s largest service export, and our third largest export behind iron ore and coal. So the benefits of higher education for national prosperity are profound but, as I emphasised at the start, the impact of universities is much broader.

A truly great university harnesses the intellect, the infrastructure and the networks at its disposal to respond to and anticipate the needs of its community. On an individual level, the university produces graduates who contribute to society and care for the common good.

But its role may also involve assisting in eradicating problems in health; addressing inequality and prejudice; or facilitating understanding within communities and nations and across international borders.

Universities help develop community identity through history, languages, literature and the arts. They increase the innovative capacity of the community and fosters entrepreneurship. And that community may not just be local or national but global.

The contribution of universities on this scale is powerful in many ways, not the least of which is the soft diplomacy afforded by international student and academic exchange. It creates lasting links into worldwide networks and extends intellectual and cultural interaction. It not only increases teaching and research excellence but builds the people-to-people ties that stay with graduates long after they leave the campus.

In a recent article, Marie Curie Research Fellow, Jean-Paul Addie, noted that one in seven countries has a leader who studied in the UK – illustrating the impact of the high-quality education the UK provides. Addie offered the observation that ‘…by rendering campuses more porous, universities can foster opportunities for collaboration, knowledge exchange and social empowerment’.

Globally, participation rates in post-secondary education are projected to rise to 25% by 2025, from around 14% in 2016, and to over 40% by the end of the century. That will mean an additional two billion participants in higher education worldwide.

This provides an extraordinary opportunity and significant responsibility for us as university leaders to ensure that we deliver the full positive impact our universities can have as servants of the global community. Amongst other things we need to empower a new generation of teachers, harnessing new technology to reach the millions who want to learn and benefit from higher education.

Higher education is not a zero-sum activity. All the evidence indicates that the more people who can access education, the more the benefits will accrue for the wellbeing and prosperity of all. It is as American Philosopher John Dewey observed in one of his lectures at Peking University in 1919,
“Where material things are concerned, the more people who share them, the less each will have, but the opposite is true of knowledge. The store of knowledge is increased by the number of people who come to share in it. Knowledge can be shared and increased at the same time— in fact, it is increased by being shared.”

The future offers opportunities for universities to be ever more important as portals to knowledge, seekers of knowledge and drivers of progress. Thank you.

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