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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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VIII. Is Higher Education a Public Good? An Analysis of the English Debate

Defining the Issues


VIII.  Is Higher Education a Public Good? An Analysis of the English Debate


Although there has not been much explicit discussion of the issue the English universities for most of their history have been perceived as providing a public good, which is formally recognised by their charitable status. Contemporarily, however, considerable attention has been paid to the private benefits that higher education bestows. This chapter explores, in terms of policy, what is meant by the claims that higher education is either a public or private good. What are the precise ways in which those terms have been interpreted? How is the contemporary emphasis upon the private benefits of higher education to be explained? The answers emerge from those political struggles that have influenced the recent course of higher education policy, and above all the attempts to restructure its funding base. The current intrusion into the debate of the idea of higher education as a private good is therefore reflective of a broader battle about both its purposes and the trajectory of its development. This is an ideological struggle with concrete policy implications. The chapter will conclude with a reflective overview on how English universities are responding to the forceful emergence of the idea of higher education as a private good and interpret its impact upon the overall structure of the system.

Perhaps the clearest understanding of why higher education was perceived as a public good is to be gained by...

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