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Higher Education As a Public Good

Critical Perspectives on Theory, Policy and Practice


Ourania Filippakou and Gareth Williams

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?
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X. Assuring the Public Good in Higher Education: Essential Framework Conditions and Academic Values



X.  Assuring the Public Good in Higher Education: Essential Framework Conditions and Academic Values


An important concern in contemporary debates about higher education policy is the ‘public good’. Economists have long distinguished ‘public’ from ‘private’ goods. Private goods are excludable; those who own the good can exercise private property rights, preventing those who have not paid for the good from using it or consuming its benefits. Private goods are also rivalrous; consumption by one consumer prevents simultaneous consumption by other consumers. In contrast a ‘public good’ or service is neither rivalrous in consumption, nor excludable in ownership, and is available to all. Such goods—national defense being the classic example—will thus either not be provided or provided in insufficient quantities by the private (market) sector and therefore must be provided or subsidised by the state.

Traditionally education, particularly higher education, has been considered by economists to provide both private and public benefits and goods (OECD, 2008; McMahon, 2009). The private benefits of higher education, which many students are willing to pay for, include postgraduate employment opportunities, higher wages and increased income over a lifetime. Even when one calculates the private internal rate of return, which considers the opportunity costs of a university degree including earnings foregone during the time used to obtain it, higher education is financially beneficial. In addition to monetary benefits, higher education produces non-monetary private benefits: direct benefits experienced in the process of consuming higher...

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