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Is there a need to debate the role of higher education
and the public good?

Author - Sandra Fisher

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Higher education - a public versus a private good

There is a queue outside the door of higher education. Government, employers, community activists, politicians, trade unions along with the aspiring higher education student call on higher education to meet their needs. Higher education in Ireland, as in many other countries, is still in the main funded by the state. On this basis its constituents are entitled to ask and seek responses to their questions on the type of educational service being provided, and whether it is responding to their particular needs. It is unlikely that there are any callers to the door of higher education who do not have or represent some vested interest. It is not the questions that are asked of higher education or the demands for service from various interest groups that present a difficulty. It is the lack of a broader based questioning about the role of publicly funded higher education in society in the new millennium. Are decisions for higher education to diversify its funding base and engage in an increasing number of partnerships, particularly with industry (Skilbeck 2001: 13), being taken for society, without engaging with society on the potential implications on the lives of students and society as a whole?

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD 2004) recommended that the Irish Government confirm that higher education institutions that generate income from sources outside of state funding will not have such income taken when state funding is being calculated, as this `will remove any disincentive to institutions to generate additional resources by their own efforts and will encourage institutional diversity' (OECD 2004: 24).

When one attempts to clarify whether higher education is a public good one enters very murky water. Writers such as Hufner (2003) have attempted to analyse the difference between a `public' and a `private' good. From an economic perspective a public good, it is argued, has two important qualities. First, it has what is termed a `non-rival aspect', which means that it should be capable of being used by people without diminishing what is available to others. Second, it has a `non-excludable aspect' which implies that usage by persons should not prevent usage by others. (Hufner 2003: 339-340). As public goods therefore should be equally available to all they cannot be provided for profit, and the state via public funding should seek to equalize the possibility of all its citizens participating in higher education.
In theory therefore if all barriers, not just direct financial ones could be overcome, all citizens could, if they chose, participate in higher education. However, accessing higher education does not provide any guarantees as to the type or quality of higher education these citizens would receive. Equally, the state makes no call on participants in higher education, beyond the expectation that they will be better placed to gain employment and thus be able to fulfil their legal taxation obligations, and in turn make their contribution to publicly funded goods such as education.

Participating in higher education confers private benefits on individual members of society. These benefits have been described as possessing both `intrinsic' and `exchange' value conferring `personal emancipation' and `individual advantage' respectively (Jonathan 1997: 59-67). The OECD study, Education at a Glance (2003), notes that in all of the countries covered by the OECD study those who participated in higher education `earn substantially more than upper secondary and post secondary non-tertiary graduates' (OECD 2003: 159). Consciously or unconsciously those of us who participate in higher education are acquiring a `positional' good which confers private benefit and grants us public status. The effect of the massification of higher education has resulted in greater demands for all to have access to higher education and has also resulted in a reduction in the perceived value of, for example, an undergraduate qualification. There has been a resultant rush for some to seek higher level qualifications in order to retain their positional advantage (Scott 2000: 195), and this is, as described by Robertson (2000: 84), leading to `credential saturation of the labour market'. Having a positional advantage implies that what you possess is scarce and therefore valued by society. Ironically the smaller number of people with higher educational credentials the more valued these are both in financial and status terms (Jonathan 2001: 38) and the more people who possess higher educational credentials results in a decrease in their positional good but the cost of provision rises (Meek 2000: 34).

In my view we need to explore whether there is a relationship between higher education and members of society who are unable to or do not desire to participate in higher education. Questions, such as whether higher education has any role to play in the lives of those who fall outside the taxation net and therefore do not contribute to its maintenance or whether its reach extends to those members of society who do not wish to attend higher education, need to be debated. The answers to these questions may lie in what we mean exactly when we say that higher education is a public good. Maybe it is necessary from time to time to go back to basics and ask fundamental questions in respect of, for example, who is the `public' and what is the `good'.

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