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A reminder of the power of learning
According to Wikipedia, learning is the process of acquiring new, or modifying existing, knowledge, behaviors, skills, values or preferences.
Universities, of course, are by their very nature great centres of learning, whether through teaching or research. The University of Wollongong fulfills that role admirably for our region, and in a wider national and international role.
This week I was reminded of the power of learning in its purest form when I returned to one of the world’s greatest centres of learning, Cambridge University, to present a lecture on my latest research.
The university is generally said to have started in 1209, when scholars from Oxford migrated to Cambridge to escape Oxford's riots of “town and gown” (townspeople versus scholars). Not surprisingly, its glorious history is celebrated constantly, as are the many great scholars who have walked its halls.
I was fortunate enough to study at Cambridge in 1990-1991, after completing my first degree at UOW. I won a Commonwealth Trust Scholarship which paid for my tuition fees and accommodation expenses.
I was admitted to the Department of Economics – John Maynard Keynes’ department – and Trinity College, which had been founded in 1546 by King Henry VIII. I studied a Master of Philosophy in Finance (MPHIL), which involved coursework covering advanced mathematical theory of finance, econometrics and statistics, and a small dissertation.
What an experience that turned out to be.
Everything, and I mean everything, was geared towards learning. I even had my bed made every day and all my meals provided by the college to free up time for studying and engaging with some of the smartest people in the world.
Even dinner was geared towards learning. You would be seated with around a table by “coincidence” learning about the latest findings of a fellow student who was a theoretical physicist on knot theory and working in Stephen Hawking’s department. Cambridge put on these kinds of experiences for its students each and every night.
My supervisor at Trinity College, Dr Steve Satchel, lived in the same room that one of the most influential scientists of all time, Sir Isaac Newton, had lived in when he was at Cambridge in the 17th century. That is where I met him for one on one tutorials.
Imagine learning in the same room where more than 300 years earlier one of the world’s greatest scientific minds discovered calculus and developed his theories on universal gravitation and the three laws of motion which form the basic principles of modern physics.
It was quite overwhelming for a boy from The Gong, and I loved it.
Now I return to Cambridge from time to time as a visiting scholar or to present, and defend, my latest research findings. This week I presented my latest research at a seminar and it felt very much like returning to my second home (after Wollongong) and talking to my old family.
My paper was about a practice on stock exchanges called off market trading - where brokers secretly execute extremely large trades in their offices, and report them to the market later.
Twenty years ago, a professor from England published a paper that suggested that it didn’t matter whether the market was told or not about these off market trades, as it didn’t seem to make a difference. Those findings gnawed at me for 20 years.
Just before Christmas last year, I stumbled across a dataset on these trades from the Australian Stock Exchange where the practice is pretty much like any other market. I was able to demonstrate that when these trades are (eventually) reported to the market, the market reacts. This implies that this information is important.
The School of Finance at Cambridge holds weekly seminars from visiting scholars during term and the School’s head Professor Bart Lambrecht, a contemporary student when I was at Cambridge, invited me to present my paper at one of these seminars. I spoke to a full house, which naturally challenged the way I had done my research and my findings. I expected nothing less from a Cambridge audience.
Returning to one of the world’s greatest centres for learning reinforced my view that while no Australian university can match Cambridge’s eight centuries of history and tradition, we can seek to emulate its passion for the sheer wonder and power of learning.
Professor Alex Frino is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Global Strategy) and Professor of Economics at the University of Wollongong.
This article was originally published in the Illawarra Mercury and can be viewed online here.