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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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IV. Higher Education, the Public Good and the Public Interest



IV.  Higher Education, the Public Good and the Public Interest


The ‘public’ is now close to being regarded as a boo-word, such has been the influence of neo-liberal ideology and ‘market’ policies over the past quarter of a century. This has remained true—so far—despite the global crisis triggered by the banking crisis in 2008 which, it might have been thought, would discredit this ideology and these policies (Crouch, 2011). The ‘public sector’ has been stigmatised as a ‘cost’, a burden on wealth generation, with little regard being paid to the diversity of activities covered by that crude overarching label (transfer payments, welfare insurance, capital investment, service provision and so on). Just as, according to Marx, surplus value accrued to owners of capital by denying workers the full value of their labour, it is now argued—equally crudely—that the ‘public sector’ is incapable of generating wealth and can only sustain itself by ‘taxing’ the wealth of others. In contrast during the third quarter of the twentieth century the development of the welfare state was justified largely in terms of investment, in the context both of economic development and of social improvement. Only in the final quarter of the last century, and during the first decade of the twenty-first century, has social expenditure come to be regarded as an overhead, more or less necessary depending on political viewpoints. Both the centre-right and the centre-left share this broad orientation.


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