Is the ‘public university’ doomed?
In a post on this blog a couple of months ago I looked at the emergence of campaigns to protect the concept of ‘public’ universities. I noted at the time that the term ‘public univertsity’ might not have as clear a meaning as some might think, and that as a society we are not really sure about how we want our higher education to be structured.
Another analysis of this issue has been published in the United States, with the author, Christopher Newfield, arguing that public universities (like much of the public service) are being undermined in a deliberate attack on the principles that lie at the heart of post-War egalitarian values. He suggests that the willingness of university leaders to search for non-public money to replace reduced state funding has helped to subvert these values of higher education.
It is my view that many of today’s proponents of public higher education are, though surely not deliberately, co-conspirators in its threatened demise. For many of these the battle for the public university has focused almost entirely on the idea of public funding as the exclusive or at least dominant revenue base for institutions, with far less emphasis on how that funding should be structured or indeed how much of it there should be. Politicians (or some of them) promise there will be no tuition fees while being completely unable to offer funding that would make the promise a sustainable one. As a result the focus has been on free access; and that is fine, except that the quality of what is being accessed seems to stir up very little interest.
Higher education quality should not be an after-thought. Preserving ‘public’ universities that are in reality unable to compete with other countries and which are starved of resources does not preserve social benefits, and is not egalitarian in effect.
I am firmly in favour of public education, but this needs to be built around its mission and purpose and not, at least primarily, around the source of its financing. It may be lost, not because people disagree with it, but because they are not invited to understand it. The tuition fees argument has become too facile, and as a result genuine public education may be compromised.
The argument for public education should be about open access to a high quality system that engages society and promotes the advancement of knowledge and scholarship. That, I believe, is how the principle should be stated. And those who want to support public higher education should stop asking politicians to sign pledges in relation to one apparent aspect of this while ignoring all the others.