The value of human assets and universities

Otago employees leave a staff meeting earlier this month. PHOTO: GERARD O’BRIEN
Otago employees leave a staff meeting earlier this month. PHOTO: GERARD O’BRIEN
I spent a long time at university, taking science papers and undertaking scientific research.

I look back on the skills I learned and critical thinking didn’t really hit until my third and fourth years, when a couple of botany lecturers asked us to think more widely than the science in front of us.

I loved it. I was both surprised and challenged by the change of spirit, yet when I remember doing English at high school, this kind of critical thinking was within the DNA of every classroom discussion. I remember fondly discussions about the language of propaganda and exploring themes of loneliness, love, ageing and loss. I found a wonderful line in a novel I am reading: "Fiction is the great lie that tells the truth about how the world lives" (The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese). Reading fiction has been a unparalleled path for me to learn about the world — the social world around me, relationships, fear, parenthood, loss and love and also the global world. Conflicts, geopolitical positions, history and cultural perspectives.

I don’t sit down and read a novel to learn, the learning is secondary to being lost in a world of someone else’s and my own imaginations; the learning happens by accident. Therein lies the beauty of the arts.

Many of us have long associations with the University of Otago. My great-grandfather was an ironmonger who helped build the wrought iron gates in the archway, my grandfather studied history and met my grandmother who studied home economics. My father and brother studied medicine, I studied botany, as my son is doing now.

I watch what is happening at the university with sadness. I also watch with hope that someone in a position of influence will realise that our best assets are our people — something which is not reflected in a balance sheet.

I hope that someone will ensure that the arts within the university remain vibrant, feeding into discourse and debate. This is not all on the university: a lack of support for the arts is also on us as parents and it is on society’s need to constantly measure and push young people into prescriptive career paths, when it is likely in 20 years time they will be doing something completely different from when they started.

I live in the measured world of science and commerce. The world I inhabit often fails to understand that ambiguity and not knowing are as important as hypothesis testing and performance indicators — probably more important, truth be told. As a society, what value do we place on learning the art of critical thinking versus the mechanics of accounting? To a certain extent, I understand the commercial reality the university faces.

I have run companies for the past decade where the profit and loss and balance statements drive decision making: if money isn’t coming through the door, how do you pay your bills?

However, it’s always good to understand that there are multiple ways to shift a balance sheet or income statement, and here comes a pet peeve of mine in relation to the economy.

New Zealand has become lazily dependent on capital growth, so much so that our ridiculously high property values have meant we have become addicted to that asset class as our way to grow or maintain wealth. Because of this and the way Australian banks have driven lending, we have learned to value property too highly. It is not a great time to divest of property, but as I have learned in business, sometimes you have to "take your medicine", and if we value what is truly important for the future of our children, that is exactly what those with influence should consider in preference to divesting of human assets.

We need to put our energy into growing income and assets through innovation and global education initiatives, so that we are less dependent on short-sighted governments. On my recent India trip, I found Australian universities starting to create campuses and greater partnerships in India. New Zealand? Nowhere to be seen.

Right now, lucrative university assets in the human form are taking interviews for jobs overseas, damaging future idea and income generating capacity. To the New Zealand government and to people in positions of influence, we need to change the narrative in terms of what we value.

What is the most important thing? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata — it is people, it is people, it is people.

 - Anna Campbell is the co-founder of Zestt Wellness, a nutraceutical company, and holds various directorships.