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.