Cambridge: a cautious embrace

By Eric Collins

Dr Helen Bao is University Lecturer in real estate finance in the Department of Land Economy, University of Cambridge. Helen completed her PhD in the Department of Management Sciences, City University of Hong Kong. Prior to coming to Cambridge, she worked on the Centa‐City Property Index project gaining extensive experience in residential property valuation and index number construction. Helen's research interests include hedonic price modelling, property price index construction, applications of behavioural sciences in real estate economics, and the land market and housing policy in the Greater China Region.

Dr Helen Bao

The peals of laughter echoing down from High Table announce that we are in an all-ladies college. In this age of gender equality, Newnham College is part of an historical breed, one of only three surviving women's colleges at Cambridge University. Walking into the dining hall for lunch, Helen Bao is greeted by her colleagues and we are invited to join them at the top table. However if we were to do so, due to an archaic College rule, we would be bound to make conversation with other fellows, and not permitted to talk to one another. So we politely decline the invitation and sit at a slightly less elevated table.

Helen has come a long way from her home town of Chi Feng in Inner Mongolia, China. Sitting under the portraits of Newnham College's 19th century founders she takes stock of her life in England.

"When I first came to Cambridge I said to myself: this sounds like such a big deal, let's find out what it's all about."

Eight years on, how does she feel?

"Well it's still a big deal. I am still learning. There's always something happening here which is completely different to what's going on elsewhere."

The flower of Victorian womanhood

Outside the rain is gently falling on the most beautiful of Cambridge college gardens, almost completely enclosed from the outside world by one of the longest connected buildings in Europe. The architectural style, Queen Anne, itself evokes a former age. The flower of England's Victorian womanhood would have studied here in safety and relative isolation should they have so wished. And the second longest corridor in Europe was so designed to ensure that, to this day, faculty and students can walk from one end of the College to the other without getting wet!

How did Helen arrive in such a rarefied place? She came to Cambridge on the back of a very Hong Kong study – a classic 'hedonic' quantitative study, researching the finely calibrated metrics of the Hong Kong property market. She arrived in the month of May – the wrong month she says, because it is the most beautiful, whilst unbeknownst to her January would prove to be correspondingly miserable. But it was too late by then. She was in thrall to the mellow brilliance of this historic university town, set deep in England's low-lying fen land.

Beauty in the colleges

The beauty of the Cambridge system, Helen says, lies in the colleges, ancient institutions which survive into the 21st century, carrying a plethora of sometimes quirky traditions with them. And she sees the collegiate system as one of the university's great strengths.

"Every single student is treated with great care. The typical size of a tutorial group for undergraduates is two or three, so individual needs can be catered for. But of course students are expected to make a contribution to the conversation. The downside is that if students don't want to work hard there is no place to hide."

Newnham is a relatively small and cosy college. It is a place where you meet people from all academic fields, and Helen finds this constantly stimulating.

"There's an element of altruism in the approach to research here: people do research because they love their topic, they want to make sense of things, and they want to pass that knowledge on to the next generation."

Putting people back in the frame

As for her own research, the focus has shifted since Hong Kong days and Helen has moved beyond the very technical area of hedonic analysis of the property market. She found that there were significant constraints in the hedonic price analysis methodology, being dependent on data sets. So after the onset of the 2008 financial crisis, some Cambridge colleagues started to look at what people actually think and do in financial markets, especially when they crash.

Standard theory assumes that people are all rational, that they receive and process information efficiently; that they are not affected by things such as altruism, ego or selfishness. But the behavioural sciences recognize that we are not perfect; sometimes we need to take shortcuts, sometimes make quick decisions, and we are therefore not always performing in an optimal way. Helen finds that in behavioural analysis you are more the architect of your research, you can design the experiment and that has brought a greater level of satisfaction. She is currently working on Prospect Theory to model the rural land reallocation reform system in China.

The garden beckons

Above all, Helen sees Cambridge as a place where you can lead a balanced life. The City Council helps maintain the cultural and architectural heritage, and makes sure the city is liveable for people. For example pedestrians and cyclists take priority over cars on many roads! If you want to get busy the city is there. But if you simply want to have a cup of tea in the quiet, the garden beckons. Helen has both a garden and an allotment, and enjoyed a good harvest of organically grown beans and chard this year.

With a nod to her previous research area, she notes that property presents a fantastic investment return, but there is a downside for her: lots of Cambridge property is rented, and that means gardens are sometimes not properly maintained. In fact weeds are growing next door to her house and as every gardener knows, that can threaten the wellbeing of tomatoes and cucumbers in your own kitchen garden.

A cautious embrace

Back at the university, Cambridge is cautiously embracing the opportunity to team up with universities on the Pacific Rim. As Director of International Relations at the Department of Land Economy Helen coordinates exchange activities, matching up visiting scholars from China with Cambridge academics to make sure that their time here is productive. She also organizes trips to China every year, for both faculty and students, so that students can leverage their supervisors' links and establish their own networks.

And what of Hong Kong? Helen fondly remembers her time at CityU and her tutor, former Dean of the Faculty of Business (College of Business), Professor LK Chan. And Hong Kong remains very much in her heart – she looks forward to keeping her connection with the College of Business alive.