The public good in higher education

For those who have become excessively depressed about the higher education environment, one thing that might cause them to take heart, at least a little, is the quantity and volume of debate about what it is for and how it should be developed. Major reports have been produced in a number of countries (including Ireland, England, Scotland and Australia), and whatever good or bad things they may be doing, governments are paying attention and are addressing higher education issues. The problem is, I guess, that many people in the academy are afraid that what they are doing is bad.

If there is discussion and debate, it is not particularly coherent. At the heart of the confusion appears to be a failure to have any kind of consensus on what higher education is actually for. Politicians are tempted to focus on higher education as a labour market management mechanism, and so academics start to argue that everybody wants to turn education into a commodity that gets traded on a market. The latter way of looking at it is expressed in an article in today’s Guardian newspaper:

‘… The treasured principle of higher education as a public good entitled to unstinting public support has gone the way of other treasured principles of the postwar settlement, in the direction of the dustbin of history … Instead, universities find themselves in a marketplace where the student is consumer, purchasing his or her university experience from the establishment that will provide the best chance of a good degree in a subject most likely to result in postgraduate employment. This was not unavoidable, and it is not higher education as many would recognise it.’

That’s the key concept being advanced: the idea of higher education as a ‘public good’. A couple of years ago it had already been argued by an Indian professor that recognition of the ‘public good’ element was being eroded and that education was becoming a ‘commodity for trade’. More recently all this was the topic chosen by the Vice-Chancellor of de Montfort University for a public debate in Leicester, which appears to have been extremely lively.

I don’t believe that this argument about whether higher education has become commodified in a marketplace has much merit in practical terms. Some of those who stress the ‘public good’ element of higher education come at it from the point of view that it should be free to users and adequately funded by the state. But it would be hard to argue that this is a necessary requirement for a ‘public good’. Theatres, opera houses and concert halls would be recognised by nearly everyone as a public good, and they do generally get state funding, and yet they charge for performances without that causing anyone to doubt their status. But because the idea of ‘free education’ has achieved iconic status with some, it has made it difficult to discuss intelligently the more immediate questions about what should actually be funded, and why.

I would suggest that absolutely nobody, not even the most assertive government, would want to deny that higher education is a public good. Suggesting otherwise makes a real debate impossible, because an argument about the higher political philosophy of the key players doesn’t translate satisfactorily into a discussion about practical steps such as fees, grants and funding. It is more a question about what, within the context of higher education as an agreed public good, we need to be doing to enhance it, and what mechanisms are most effective for this.

Academics and universities are visibly losing whatever argument may be going on, because their points are not resonating with those outside the academy. There seems to me to be little doubt that most governments are getting their higher education policies totally wrong. But the reasons for this are sometimes practical rather than philosophical. The problem is not that students are purchasing a service (I have never met a student who thinks of it that way, even now), or that competition is distorting provision, but rather that governments are not willing to find enough money for what is an expensive activity. So for example, the British government has done the absolutely unthinkable and stopped funding teaching in arts and humanities; and they are getting away with it, because the arguments put forward against may seem to the general public to be obscure, and these arguments are therefore not being heard.

Hard though it may be to see this, we should accept that all believe in higher education a a public good, governments included. So the academy needs to stop talking about all this as an argument about ‘treasured principles’ and move instead to a discussion about practical effects, including the need to address this as an educational issue and not just a labour market one. Only when we do that are we likely to get wider support. If students are consumers, let them understand that what they are going to be buying is at risk of being shoddy, and why. And then, let the wider debate be about how the burden of paying for education can be most effectively and fairly discharged.

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9 Comments on “The public good in higher education”

  1. iain Says:

    Theatres and Opera Houses. Ah I see where your going about universities. High ticket prices and no riff-raff.😉

    Incidentally, I see the peasants are revolting in Scotland:

    http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/education/academics-in-bitter-attack-on-university-management-1.1087967

  2. Iainmacl Says:

    I know it should be “you’re”. I hate this iPad grammar/spelling auto “correction”

  3. Jilly Says:

    No, not like theatres and opera houses: that’s not the argument for public goods, as FvP must know. Instead, it’s like a clean water supply and a sewerage system.

    If clean water and sewage disposal services are provided on a user-pays model, I may be able to afford to pay for it, but my neighbours in the next street may not. In time therefore, typhoid/cholera will have broken out in the neighbouring street. I may well catch this and die, despite my own clean water and sewage disposal system. Therefore, it is not in my interest to restrict these services to those who can pay the full economic cost.

    The argument for education as a public good is that even if I can afford to pay for it, my quality of life (even level of absolute income) will be damaged by living in a society which contains a significant proportion of under-educated fellow citizens.

    And one further point – if higher education is to be provided on a user-pays model, why not secondary and primary education also?


    • Jilly, nobody who has any sense of environmental responsibility should ever argue for a free water supply! It is a recipe (as we know in Ireland) for a huge amount of waste of this vital natural resource. The point about any public good is that you need to have a model for establishing and protecting it, and another for funding it. It does not follow, at all, that because something is a public good that it should therefore be free. Nothing is free, anyway.

      As for primary/secondary/third level, there is an absolute public interest in ensuring that the entire population goes through primary and secondary. The same does not apply to third level. This creates a potential body of people who secure a personal benefit at the expense of those who will not get access. That doesn’t mean that there have to be fees, but it does mean that the issue is more complex than some argue.

  4. anna notaro Says:

    *There seems to me to be little doubt that most governments are getting their higher education policies totally wrong. But the reasons for this are sometimes practical rather than philosophical.*

    I would not dismiss that easily the philosophical or better, ideological, aspect of policies, not just in the field of education, put forward by conservative politicians. An ideological shift in such policies has occurred in the UK since Margaret Thatcher was in power and her legacy cannot be underestimated today. The ‘practical’ is often only the flipside coin of the philosophical. I might be an old fashion kind of socialist but I still believe that ideologies and principles inform the (practical) choices we make. Also

    *The problem is not that students are purchasing a service (I have never met a student who thinks of it that way, even now)*
    Well I have, and many other colleagues have too I’m sure. Consumerism, commodification are not ‘dirty’ words per se, as long as students fully understand their implications, as educators we face incredible challenges when we tackle such concepts, the supermarkets seem to have won the philosophical battle as well, education is just like any other commodity bought and sold for a price..


    • I think it depends on what you think ‘buying’ and ‘selling’ involves. Yes, education is bought and sold, but at one level it always was. What changes from time to time is how it is priced, and who pays for it – i.e. who the contract is with. When the state buys education in bulk (which is what a non-fee framework involves) the transaction can be every bit as commodity-driven as when the buyer is (or appears to be) a student. The main difference is that in the former case (the state buying) there is a hugely unequal relationship in the transaction, because the state is able to enforce its commercial intentions and, if it wishes, punish the seller for wanting to protect their interests.

      • anna notaro Says:

        but in yourcomment it seems that the state is something alien and distant, isn’ it ‘us’? The whole collectivity??
        And then there are some things, like expanding a young person mind, on which it is difficult to put a price tag (even the slogan associated with the Mastercard Ad campaign recognizes that!)
        Education is not a commodity, rather in the language of both Adam Smith and Karl Marx, the performance of a service.


        • Anna, your wrote: ‘Education is not a commodity, rather in the language of both Adam Smith and Karl Marx, the performance of a service.’ If one were to go with that, what is the difference between a ‘service’ and a ‘commodity’?

          I think I feel another blog post coming on around this topic!🙂


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