The concept of the public good has been integral to universities since their inception, and yet, it is currently missing from UK policymaking on higher education. This is the premise of the talk that Professor Simon Marginson, director of the Centre for Global Higher Education and Professor at the University of Oxford, delivered for the Annual Lecture of King’s School of Education, Communication & Society.
In his lecture, Professor Marginson questioned and explored this issue of the missing public good, and outlined a possible way forward for university administrators, teachers, and other stakeholders in our current policy environment.
How neglecting the public good has led to a higher education policy trap
Professor Marginson identified what he calls a “crisis of the collective” in our current society: a general trend towards an overvaluing of the market and the role of the individual, in place of social purpose.
How is this playing out in the higher education sector?
Professor Marginson discussed the role of higher education in our society, distinguishing between two main functions: the intrinsic and the extrinsic. Among the intrinsic functions of higher education are ‘education’ – ie teaching and learning – and ‘knowledge’ – specifically its production and dissemination, both of which have standalone value.
However, despite this value, current higher education policymaking is instead centred very strongly around the extrinsic functions of education – the dominant extrinsic function being higher education’s role in making an individual more employable and able to garner higher pay in the workplace.
This emphasis on the marketable, economic outcomes of higher education has become deeply embedded in the political and societal culture of the UK. The popularisation of economic theories such as human capital theory and the concept of the ‘knowledge economy’ have normalised the marketisation of higher education and economics-oriented higher education policy. For example, high university tuition fees have been justified by the logic that if students are able to earn more after completing a certain higher education degree, they should also be individually responsible for paying the cost of this degree programme.
This narrative has overall worked to reduce the value of a higher education degree to that of the employability and the earnings of the individual graduate, and the concept of the public good within both the university experience and a university degree has been heavily neglected.
Within this narrative, higher education has become ensnared in a “policy trap” that has “tied up and gagged” universities, said Professor Marginson. Despite the fact that higher education institutions cannot be held solely responsible for these economic outcomes, policymakers often treat them as able to do so. This has resulted in a narrowing of headline issues around higher education. Current debates in UK policy and media focus heavily on degrees’ ‘value for money’ and concerns around ‘low-value courses’ at universities, and disregard any acknowledgment of the public good in higher education degree courses. The UK government has even recently proposed placing penalties on universities that do not perform well on specific market-based outcomes – such as the percentage of graduates who acquire jobs or are enrolled in further education courses post-graduation.
Regaining the public good through embedding universities in their local communities
With such an intense focus on the economic functions of higher education, how do universities re-focus on the role of the public good in their institutions?
Professor Marginson’s answer involved answering a different, key question: “what kind of society do we want and how does higher education contribute to that?”
He believes that we don’t have to resign ourselves to the current situation in the UK, where the benefits of higher education are acknowledged almost entirely only in terms of employment rates and earnings post-graduation. Instead, we can look to countries like Finland, which acknowledges the important social purposes and public good in higher education, and is able to maintain a flourishing higher education system.