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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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VI. A Most Public Private Matter—Changing Ideas of Economists about the Public–Private Dimensions of Higher Education



VI.  A Most Public Private Matter—Changing Ideas of Economists about the Public–Private Dimensions of Higher Education


In recent decades it has become increasingly popular among economists to apply economic tools to analyse an expanding array of topics one of which is (higher) education. The development of these interests has led to the progressive consolidation of a specialised community that has aimed at establishing an economic view about higher education, with particular attention to issues such as the individual and social costs and benefits, mechanisms of funding and their effects and the transition of graduates to the labour market (Teixeira, 2001; Winston, 1999). The development of an economic approach to higher education issues has been received with interest, but also with controversy and even resistance. Several social scientists and policy makers have regarded it as yet another example of economic imperialism with little potential to contribute to a better understanding of higher education systems and higher education institutions (see Fine and Milonakis, 2009). Despite such resistance, economic concepts and arguments have made their way and are nowadays often used in public debates about higher education, notably in aspects such as funding (Teixeira 2009a and 2009b).

One of the central aspects in the economic debate about higher education refers to the nature and specificity of higher education as a good and the extent to which it should be provided as a public service or a private commodity. The debate about...

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