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Higher Education As a Public Good

Critical Perspectives on Theory, Policy and Practice


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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Higher education serves both public and private purposes. In the public sphere at various times universities have existed primarily to provide intellectual underpinnings for religious beliefs and to provide staff for religious organisations, to provide qualified public servants for emerging nation states, to discover theoretical laws and processes that permit understanding and some control of the natural world, and to provide thoughtful and able people in a very wide range of occupations in a modern society. At the same time those who have been able to become religious leaders or senior public servants or distinguished scientists or generally successful in their occupations as a result of their higher education have invariably obtained considerable benefits as individuals. However the balance between the public and private and what constitute the public and private benefits has swung backwards and forwards over the centuries. In recent decades the main public benefit has been seen by governments at least as the promotion of economic growth while distributing the benefits to as many people as possible as equally as possible.

This book examines how different theoretical perspectives conceive of higher education as a public good. The idea of higher education as a public good is also used as a vehicle for theorizing the study of higher education. However, the following chapters are not only theoretical analyses. Drawing upon different disciplinary perspectives, they explore how theories about the purposes and functions of higher education impinge on policy and practice.

Although in...

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