Public perceptions of higher education: *The idea of a university: is it

Is the University a
Public Good?
Professor W. John Morgan
UNESCO Chair of Political Economy and
Education, University of Nottingham
The Idea of a University
• ‘Educating Leaders for 800 years!’
• Poster advertising the University of Oxford
outside Oxford railway station.
• What does this tell us about the changing ‘Idea
of a University’ ? In Europe and North America,
we associate this traditionally with:
• John Henry Newman and with Wilhelm von
• The ‘Idea’ was the social reproduction of élites
assumed to serve the public good.
What is the Public Good?
• The modern university has evolved in parallel
with changing definitions of the public good.
• According to early liberal theory, for instance,
J.S. Mill, it was a good provided either because
it was of benefit to the community as a whole
or could or should not be provided privately
e.g. national defence.
• As states and societies became more complex
in terms of regulation and of welfare provision
so the definition changed.
What is the Public Good?
• Policies were justified as claims upon public
wealth either because of the specific benefits
provided to recipients identified as being in need
of state support e.g. student grants or because of
the general benefits perceived for society as a
whole e.g. an educated population.
• This was the dominant view that paralleled and
supported the growth of the modern university.
What is the Public Good?
• Neo-liberalism has challenged this.
• It argues that, economically, private
investment and provision produces outcomes
that are superior to those of public investment
and provision.
• It argues also that, morally, individuals (and
communities) should have the choice that this
alternative provides.
What is the Public Good?
• Neo-liberalism argues that the combined social
benefit from economic efficiency and choice
leads in practice to a greater aggregate public
• It does not, however, take into consideration the
impact on normative issues such as equality and
social justice.
• What is the effect of this on the relationship
between the contemporary university and the
public good?
The Contemporary University
• The contemporary university may be said to
have three basic social functions. These are
its contributions to:
• Human and social development in all its
• Knowledge and learning societies.
• Economic development and employment. This
includes entrepreneurship and social
The Contemporary University
• There is no longer a single organizational
model. This raises questions of quality,
relevance and capacity.
• The need for social cohesion means that
public policy should ensure that the university
is inclusive of all in society.
• This does not mean the same provision for all,
but it does mean provision of opportunity for
education of high quality whatever the target
The University & the Public Good
• The economics of university education are based
on the theory that it enhances human capital
through developing individual knowledge and
skills beyond embodied capacities.
• Such enhancement is the main economic benefit
of the university to individuals. It is why students
enrol and give of their time and resources. They
expect a private return on this investment.
The University & the Public Good
• Such returns are not simple of calculation and
require sophisticated econometrics even to
produce reasonable approximations.
• Essentially, however, students and their families
invest in university education with a view to
enhancing their career prospects.
• Some professions carry with them more
vocational appeal and potential social benefit
than others. This skews attempts at calculation.
The University & the Public Good
• University education also enables its
graduates to build their personal cultural and
social capital which may be of employment
benefit subsequently.
• This considers university education as a
private investment good rather than a private
consumption good. This is not to deny the
considerable consumption benefits to
The University & the Public Good
• It justifies, in part at least, public subsidies to
students and to providers i.e. universities and
• The public also expects a return on its
investment in terms of the contribution of the
university to economic and social
development generally.
• This is the social return or the public good.
The University & the Public Good
• Governments can provide, subsidise, contract
or regulate university education.
• As stated, they invest in it for the economic,
social and cultural benefits it is seen to bring
to nation-building and sustainability.
• However, much of this is found in indirect and
intangible social benefits and externalities
which are very difficult to calculate.
The University & the Public Good
• It is claimed that university education:• Raises the productivity and incomes of all
employees through knowledge transfer.
• Promotes technical change through research
and development.
• Increases allocative efficiency and labour
flexibility and mobility.
• Cultivates social cohesion, community values
and stability.
The University & the Public Good
• The employability of graduates is key to a
healthy university system and to the
contemporary public good.
• This is related to the quality of teaching; and
to capacity for research and development
• The university has also a complementary
responsibility to the public good through
contributing to cultural and social cohesion.
The University & the Public Good
• The university is both a creator of and
repository of knowledge;
• and the incubator of sustainable economic
and social development;
• and of intellectual and moral leadership;
• which brings me back to the University of
Oxford poster where I began.
• Each of these has local, national and global
The University & the Public Good
• This was recognized by UNESCO at the World
Conference on Higher Education in Paris,
2009. The communiqué concluded that the
strategic role of higher education in human
sustainable development was:
• ‘…crucial, and all the more so as we navigate
through the economic crisis. Higher education
systems must be expanded and strengthened
to provide learning opportunities to all
students regardless of their background.’
The University & the Public Good
• In recent years there has been a reconsideration of the public role of the
university and of the related issue of graduate
• However, under the influence of neoliberalism, this has emphasized the economic
and market function of the university, rather
than its social function. Certain questions
deserve more consideration:-
What do we know about how the
public view and value higher
Universities Week survey reveals the public are
in the dark when it comes to universities
A new Populus survey undertaken to launch Universities Week
2010 has revealed that the British public knows surprisingly little
about universities in the UK. Only one in five people know
approximately how many universities there are in the country, and
one in six people do not rate them as major local employers.
Less than one-in-five people recognise the wider impacts
universities have on society.
The public role of universities is hotly
– ‘public’ vs ‘private’ benefit
– ‘market’ vs ‘social’ value
– ‘applied’ vs ‘abstract’ knowledge
– ‘academic freedom’ vs ‘regulation’
Market benefits
Shorter term
Medium term
Longer run
• Jobs
• Starting salaries
• Social mobility
• Lifetime earnings
• Better savings
• Income growth
• Per capita economic
Private nonmarket benefits
• Degree completion
Better health
Less smoking
Less obesity
Less depression
Child health
Lower infant mortality
• Greater longevity
• Slower population
• More investment
• Political stability
• Sustainable
Social / public
(benefits to
others, to
society at large
and to future
• Learning (test scores)
Civic participation
Racial tolerance
Less cynicism
Charitable giving
• Growth of civic
• Larger middle class
• Less support for
• Rule of law
• Democratization
• Human rights
• Time to graduation
• Parenting (books etc)
• Child learning, college
• Intergenerational
• Education increased
• Access / affordability
• Lower unemployment
• Education finance
• Universal access
• Lower crime
• Reduced inequality
• Less poverty
• Social cohesion (social
• Lower prison costs
• Dissemination of new
technology and
• New R&D
• Dynamic growth
‘the estimate that social benefit
externalities constitute about 52% of the
total benefits of HE is an approximate
guide to how far the privatization of HE
should proceed before public investment
falls below the level conducive to
optimum efficiency’ (p 255)
Engagement implies strenuous, thoughtful,
argumentative interaction with the nonuniversity world in at least four spheres:
setting universities’ aims, purposes and
priorities; relating teaching and learning to
the wider world; the back-and-forth
dialogue between researchers and
practitioners; and taking on wider
responsibilities as neighbours and citizens.
Association of Commonwealth Universities
Discussion points
• How do we prepare graduates for employment
that is both economically rewarding and socially
• How do we balance the need for research to be
socially ‘useful’ without curtailing curiosity and
• What are the consequences of the growing
relationship between publicly funded higher
education and the private and corporate sectors?
• How should universities communicate their
purposes to ensure wider societal support and

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