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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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The role of higher education in shaping and realizing the public good

When we speak of the dual role of higher education in promoting economic development and social justice there is a tendency to focus, rightly some might argue, on ensuring that the `disadvantaged' are encouraged to participate fully in society, i.e. through the attainment of employment and exercising their duties as responsible citizens, for example through voting in elections. I would argue that there is not enough importance attached to the role of higher education in the lives of students who through their participation in higher education will help define the type of society we live in. To keep alive `our optimism' in the `socially transformative' potential of higher education (Jonathan 2001: 36), higher education has to seek to avoid:

Our deep-rooted tendency to think of persons first and foremost atomistically. Rather we need to regard persons as members of groups from the start, their very being and identity constituted by such membership and to conceive autonomy in interpersonal rather than intra- personal terms.
(Smith 1997: 127)

The competitive entry system of Irish higher education places a premium on attracting second-level students with the highest marks. This competitive system already influences young adults to operate in society as autonomous and competitive individuals prior to their ever setting foot in a higher level educational institution. The conflict between meeting the good of all citizens whilst also meeting the needs of each citizen brings into conflict the dual role of higher education in promoting economic well-being and social justice. The meritocratic system potentially replicates existing social structures (Jonathan 2001). Brown et al. (1997: 9) note that `several theorists have hypothesized that the purpose of credentials is to screen personalities as much as cognitive achievement'.

It could be argued that it is unrealistic and unfair to deny students entry on the basis of merit and that each student is entitled to access their share of education as a `public good'. However, higher education through its socialization of students, could be an important place where the seeds for forming and realizing the public good are sown (Jonathan 2001). The distinction between higher education as a public good versus higher education realizing the public good, it can be argued, might represent merely a playing with semantics. However, if one goes back to the dual role of higher education as supporting economic development and social justice one places responsibilities on higher education in respect of its role in knowledge production and dissemination either through its research or teaching functions. Obligations are placed on higher education not just to be responsible for the production of knowledge and the education of students but also critically that this knowledge production and education of students is situated in the context of conferring benefit not only on individuals but also on society. In short higher education is not of itself a public good unless its efforts are directed to realizing the public good.

Jonathan (2001) has attempted to move away from the public/private good debate, as she rightly points out that higher education confers both public and private benefits, and the relationship between these is complex. Instead she has tried to articulate higher education as a `social practice' and therefore a `social good' arguing that:

We are each affected by the education, or lack of it, of others: this we experience collectively. But we are each also powerfully – and differentially – affected by our own education, or lack of it: this we experience privately. This together with other unique features of education as a social practice make this `good' neither `public' nor `private' but social. (author's italics).
(Jonathan 2001: 31)

If higher education has a role in shaping and realizing the public good, and if we accept also that it is essentially a social practice with citizens connected either consciously or unconsciously in a relationship which ascribes benefits and/or losses to varying degrees, then might not higher education have a responsibility to at least raise to a conscious level in society the nature of these benefits and losses to individuals, groups and society in general. A particular concern is that not only those who are excluded from the `bonds of common citizenship' but that those at the `top can exclude themselves from these bonds and thereby fail to acknowledge the equal worth of their fellow citizens' (Martin 2003: 572).


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