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Higher Education As a Public Good

Critical Perspectives on Theory, Policy and Practice

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Edited By 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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XI. Inequality and the Erosion of the Public Good

Introduction

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XI.  Inequality and the Erosion of the Public Good

JON NIXON

Strong democratic societies require educated and informed publics that are both inclusive and questioning. Within such societies, knowledge is the most public of all public goods—and education, therefore, is an indispensable resource, the benefits of which cut across a range of public interests and concerns. The more complex the society, the wider that range becomes; and the wider the range of public interests and concerns, the greater the need for public goods generally and for the public good of education in particular. From this perspective, higher education is a public good because it contributes to the development of an educated public with the capabilities necessary to fulfil the human potential of each of its members and of society as a whole. In so doing it also contributes—both directly and indirectly—to economic stability which might be seen as a public good in its own right.

That was the rationale for the massive post-WWII expansion of higher education in many countries—an expansion premised on the notion of higher education as a public good. Within the UK seven new universities—East Anglia, Essex, Kent Lancaster, Sussex, Warwick and York—were announced in 1961; two years later, in 1963, the Robbins report recommended further rapid expansion of the higher education sector; and, in 1971, the newly established Open University enrolled its first cohort of students. Tony Judt (2010, p. 394) highlights...

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