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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 as a private good

The idea of higher education as a public good is linked to the notion that without state intervention the market would fail to provide adequate provision for all citizens (Hufner 2003: 340). This would result in a reduced number of people being able to make a contribution to society, in particular an economic contribution, and hence society as a whole would suffer. However, conceptualizing higher education, or what is now more frequently presented in the guise of lifelong learning, as having a dual role in the development of human capital and the promotion of social justice (Walters and Watters 2001: 471) requires that we consider the `public' as including all citizens regardless of whether or not they currently wish to or can participate. Defining the `public' to include everybody might imply that all have a say in the degree of `private' benefit which may be accrued at either an individual or an organizational level and opens up the possibility of the `good' aspect of higher education being defined by all regardless of their position in society.

One might argue that conceptualizing higher education as having a dual role of promoting economic well-being and social justice justifies its treatment as a public good. However, as noted earlier, higher education confers private benefits on both individual students and also potentially the organizations they work for. Jonathan (2001) expresses concern that an increasing emphasis on the contribution that higher education makes to economic well-being is promoting `heightened individualism' and `increased social stratification' (Jonathan 2001: 28). If all members of society are not able to or do not wish to participate in higher education then there is, I believe, a need to open up a debate on the implications of this. To continue to publicly fund higher education on the basis that all members of society ultimately benefit, either directly or indirectly, requires some effort to be made to ensure that the promotion of economic prosperity and social justice for all is nurtured among participants of higher education.

The purported failure of the higher education system to deliver on expectations with regard to social justice and equity have been deemed to be either `failure in the process of implementation' by the education system or `inherent inadequacies in its intended beneficiaries' (Jonathan 1997: 63). In short either the education system is at fault or some of society's citizens are somehow deficient.

An increasing tendency to position higher education as a market needing to respond to the needs of `consumers' is resulting in `the compression of intrinsic educational goals to extrinsic market performance indicators' (Gibbs 2001: 87). Presenting higher education as not living up to its dual mandate of delivering on economic development and social justice results in an undermining of trust in the education system, and calls for reform and greater efficiency are made (Gibbs 2001).

It is perhaps easy to blame the education system for failure to produce economic or social justice returns. However, decisions are not made by systems, but by individuals and groups within any system. The influencers and decision-makers are in many cases those who have privately benefited from higher education. An education system which is promoting individualization of society with an emphasis on `getting ahead' on an individual basis requires that we evaluate why this is allowed to happen. To avoid looking at issues of power and influence is to deny that ultimately decisions within society are made by individuals or groups. Brown et al. (1997) note that:

it is very difficult, if not impossible, to demonstrate a causal relationship between education and economic productivity. There are two related reasons for this. Firstly, the link between education and productivity is mediated by issues of power most clearly seen in the phenomenon of credential inflation. And secondly, changes in the demand for skill are as much a social as a technical issue, subject to vested interest and social conflict.
(Brown et al. 1997: 9)

This is not to say, as has been outlined by Jonathan (2001: 26) that `public = good' and `private = bad'. However, society is not a level playing pitch for all its members. Perhaps the concern over the `private' benefit aspect of higher education is that not all have an equal opportunity to define what is an appropriate private benefit, and those who attain private benefits are not bound to contribute to society beyond their legal obligations. In an ideal world all members of society would be able to articulate their views on higher education as a public good, and contribute to how this `good' was defined and enacted. As this is not the case, maybe a more promising area to explore is the role of higher education in realizing the public good as against accepting per se that higher education is a public good.


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