Higher Education As a Public Good

Critical Perspectives on Theory, Policy and Practice

by Ourania Filippakou (Volume editor) Gareth Williams (Volume editor)
©2015 Textbook VIII, 212 Pages
Series: Global Studies in Education, Volume 27


Higher education is likely to involve the majority of people at some time in their lives in the twenty-first century. The main drivers of expansion in the previous century were a belief that widening access promotes social equity and the advance of knowledge as the main factor underpinning economic success for individuals and societies. However, universal higher education in rapidly changing economies raises many questions that have been inadequately treated by previous authors. This volume focuses on the question of whether it is appropriate and inevitable that higher education systems are becoming so large and so diverse that the only realistic way they can be analysed is as aggregates of market-like transactions. Most of the authors are not satisfied with this conclusion, but they recognise, from several disciplinary perspectives, that it is no longer possible to take it for granted that higher education is intrinsically a public good. Are there convincing alternatives?

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • I. Higher Education As a Public Good: Notes for a Discussion
  • Overview
  • Higher Education: A Public Matter
  • Outline of the Book
  • Part I: Theoretical Approaches
  • Part II: Models and Policies
  • Part One Theoretical Approaches
  • II. In Search of a Public: Higher Education in a Global Age
  • Introduction
  • The Problem of the Public
  • The Emergence of Multiple Publics
  • Higher Education: A Public Matter
  • The Making of a Public Good
  • The Possibility of the Public Student
  • Conclusions
  • References
  • III. Transparency, Accountability and the Public Role of Higher Education
  • Regretting Performativity
  • Verifying Accounts
  • The Magic of the Performative
  • Transparency and Transformation
  • The Functional and the Transformative
  • Corrupted Drives
  • The Priestly Caste
  • Notes
  • References
  • IV. Higher Education, the Public Good and the Public Interest
  • Introduction
  • Definitions of the ‘Public’
  • Higher Education, the State and the ‘Public’
  • Public Goods
  • Public Interest
  • Cultural Identity
  • Democratic Accountability
  • Social Justice—and Social Identity
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • V. Institutionalising the Public Good: Conceptual and Regulatory Challenges
  • Introduction
  • Conceptualising the Public Good
  • Regulating the Public Good
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • References
  • VI. A Most Public Private Matter—Changing Ideas of Economists about the Public–Private Dimensions of Higher Education
  • Introduction
  • Constructing the Canon
  • Adam Smith and the Case for Market Forces in Higher Education
  • John Stuart Mill and the Emergence of State Paternalism in Education
  • Alfred Marshall and the Problem of Market Failures in Education
  • Milton Friedman and the Contemporary Revival of the Market in Educational Policy
  • Final Remarks—A Legacy of Ambivalence and Controversy
  • Notes
  • References
  • Part Two Models and Policies
  • VII. The Paradoxical University and the Public Good
  • Introduction
  • Public Good
  • Tradition and Change
  • Hierarchy and Democracy
  • Becoming Proactive
  • Taking a Proactive Stance
  • Conclusion
  • Acknowledgments
  • References
  • VIII. Is Higher Education a Public Good? An Analysis of the English Debate
  • Defining the Issues
  • A Public or a Private Good
  • The Changing Understanding of Higher Education As a Public Good
  • Higher Education As a Private Good
  • Universities in the Marketplace: Blurring the Distinction Between Public and Private Providers
  • References
  • IX. A Cultural Value in Crisis: Education As Public Good in China
  • Introduction
  • Culture and History
  • The Contemporary System
  • Socialist Public Good
  • Turning to the Market
  • Unexpected Impacts
  • Looking Ahead
  • Notes
  • References
  • X. Assuring the Public Good in Higher Education: Essential Framework Conditions and Academic Values
  • Introduction
  • Education Policy
  • Variable Fees and Tuition Caps
  • ‘Perfect’ Information for Student Choice
  • Quality Assurance Policy
  • University Research Policy
  • Research Doctoral Programme Policy
  • Technology Transfer Policy
  • Research Evaluations
  • Public Service
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • References
  • XI. Inequality and the Erosion of the Public Good
  • Introduction
  • A Privatised Public
  • Inequalities of Access and Outcomes in Higher Education
  • Inequalities of Quality
  • A Hard Choice
  • Notes
  • References
  • Coda
  • XII. Reflections on the Debate
  • Introduction
  • Higher Education for the Public Good
  • Inside Higher Education
  • Civil Society
  • Higher Education Institutions As Components of Wider Educational and Social Systems
  • The Inter-Generational Economics
  • Higher Education and Equality
  • Research
  • Concluding Remarks
  • References
  • Contributors
  • Index
  • Series Index



Higher education serves both public and private purposes. In the public sphere at various times universities have existed primarily to provide intellectual underpinnings for religious beliefs and to provide staff for religious organisations, to provide qualified public servants for emerging nation states, to discover theoretical laws and processes that permit understanding and some control of the natural world, and to provide thoughtful and able people in a very wide range of occupations in a modern society. At the same time those who have been able to become religious leaders or senior public servants or distinguished scientists or generally successful in their occupations as a result of their higher education have invariably obtained considerable benefits as individuals. However the balance between the public and private and what constitute the public and private benefits has swung backwards and forwards over the centuries. In recent decades the main public benefit has been seen by governments at least as the promotion of economic growth while distributing the benefits to as many people as possible as equally as possible.

This book examines how different theoretical perspectives conceive of higher education as a public good. The idea of higher education as a public good is also used as a vehicle for theorizing the study of higher education. However, the following chapters are not only theoretical analyses. Drawing upon different disciplinary perspectives, they explore how theories about the purposes and functions of higher education impinge on policy and practice.

Although in the public domain the argument is mainly about how higher education is to be funded, a wide range of issues have been drawn into the debate. What is a public good? What is the public good? What is the impact of student fees have upon access to higher education and its content? Is higher education more than preparation for relatively well-paid occupations? How ← vii | viii → do the traditional academic subjects react to this process? Are higher education institutions more than training institutions and research laboratories? Is a particular university providing a unique product that justifies commercial branding? What is quality and how is it to be assured and enhanced?

Most countries have now achieved mass higher education in terms of the proportions of each generation that at least embark on a higher education programme of study. A large and increasing share of all goods and services consumed is composed of the knowledge embodied in them and higher education is perceived as one of the most important creators and disseminators of knowledge. This raises many questions that were previously taken for granted about its purposes, content and costs.

Most countries have been experiencing a shift from public to private funding of universities and colleges. This raises the question of how the purposes of higher education are perceived: as a commodity that increasingly brings only private benefits or as a set of socio-cultural experiences that attempt to achieve a wider public good. The line is being drawn differently in different countries but the direction of change is global.

This book arose out of a conference of the Society for Research into Higher Education at New College Oxford in June 2011. All the chapters have been extensively revised. ← viii | 1 →


← 1 | 2 →

← 2 | 3 →


I.  Higher Education As a Public Good: Notes for a Discussion



As mass higher education evolves into universal higher education, with more than half the population taking part, massive debates about its purpose and practice are taking place. One of the most important of these is a questioning of the widely held view that higher education is intrinsically a public good. The aim of this book is to examine this debate in the context of exploring the purposes of higher education in the 21st century.

Higher education as a public good can be theorised in three broad ways: ideas of higher education, models of higher education delivery and policies where ideas and models meet the world of other, often conflicting claims and ideas. This book is as an examination of these three approaches emerging out of the current ideological struggle at the core of higher education that is reshaping policy and institutional behaviour:

  1. The ways in which the idea of higher education as a public good is changing—the interpretations of higher education as either a private or a public good—in response to the pressures coming from the state, especially the political control of funding.
  2. How curriculum delivery and research might be effected in pursuit of (1).
  3. How institutional change might be effected in order to bring about 1. and 2.

Higher education is now a key policy arena for government and the state. The political debate centres upon the perceived role of higher education in ← 3 | 4 → the securing the smooth functioning of a modern society. To assume that higher education is basically a private good gives it different societal functions from the interpretation which sees it as a public good.

In the rest of this chapter, I summarise the contributions of the book and an analytical framework by which we might understand the changes—at curricular, institutional, national and global levels—currently underway and which will serve as a framework within which the other contributions can be placed.

Higher Education: A Public Matter

During much of the twentieth century the provision of higher education was seen, particularly in Europe, mainly as a public good as part of the welfare state, but this view is increasingly challenged. Recently, largely under the prompting of economic analysis, that proposition has changed as the idea of a welfare state has itself changed and there has been a shift in the discourse. The focus now is upon the private benefits of higher education. Perhaps the key point to be derived from this shift in the discourse, occurring in many countries and supported by governments of different political persuasion, is that the purposes of higher education are being redefined. A consensus has evolved, which embraces the state (both its bureaucratic and political branches), an increasing range of organised interests and think-tanks, and many of the more immediate stakeholders such as employers and university governing bodies and even includes many students, parents, faculty and administrative personnel.

No longer can those engaged in the academic study of higher education take it for granted that higher education is seen primarily as a public good; that is to say, this claim carries less legitimacy than it did. But such a reconceptualisation of higher education is only the start of a question raising process. For what kinds of outcomes are being promoted if higher education is more of a private than a public good? What kind of purposes are being pursued? What kinds of compromises are possible between two conflicting ideological conceptions?

An analysis of this kind alerts us to the social dynamics at work. It also suggests that evaluations of higher education as a public/private good should incorporate questions such as:


VIII, 212
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2013 (January)
economic success expansion knowledge
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 212 pp.

Biographical notes

Ourania Filippakou (Volume editor) Gareth Williams (Volume editor)

Ourania Filippakou is Senior Lecturer and Co-Director of the Postgraduate Taught Programmes in the Faculty of Education at the University of Hull. She holds a PhD from the Institute of Education, University of London. Her main areas of interest are in higher education policy analysis and social theory. Gareth Williams is Emeritus Professor at the Institute of Education, London University. He founded the Centre for Higher Education Studies in 1985 and was its Director until his retirement in 2001. An education economist; he has worked mainly on higher education finance.


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