Skip to main content
KBS_Icon_questionmark link-ico
Annual Lecture audience-1903x558 ;

Higher education & knowledge: where is the public good?

Siobhan O'Brien

Research Engagement & Support Officer, School of Education, Communication & Society, King's College London

01 August 2022

At the Annual Lecture of King’s School of Education, Communication & Society, held on 4 July 2022, Professor Simon Marginson delivered a fascinating talk in which he discussed the current “crisis of the collective”, focus on the economic outcomes of higher education, warped concerns on the value for money of university degrees, and the need to regain public good by embedding higher education institutions in their local areas. Siobhan O’Brien, Research Engagement & Support Officer in the School, recounts his main points in this blog.

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.

Professor Marginson suggested that one of the solutions to re-introducing the public good into the UK higher education system would be through the mechanism of devolution: embedding universities more comprehensively into their surroundings, their local areas and communities, and placing higher value on the system of community-based ethics that these institutions can help foster.– Siobhan O'Brien

This would, for example, embed King’s College London more deeply in the values of the diverse London community, which would be entirely appropriate for an institution that aims to have an international and wide-ranging impact across many different fields of study.

This process of devolution may also help tackle the issue that social and economic inequalities cannot be overcome by higher education institutions alone. Broad-based, community commitment is required to tackle these barriers, and embedding universities deeper into their local communities would allow more stakeholders to have a voice and impact in this process.

With an audience of university academics and administrators, the lecture ended with a discussion around what role higher education employees can – and must – play in the movement towards creating a higher education environment that values the public good.

As Professor Marginson referenced, universities have incredible staying power, but this does not guarantee that they will always be institutions that are centred around the public good. University employees must utilise their own agency and work towards building an environment where the public good is valued. This includes questioning concepts such as, who holds power over the production and value-assigning of knowledge, who holds power over the credentialisation of education, and how the answers to these questions can either aid or destroy the work towards building a socially just and equitable higher education system.


You can watch the recording of the lecture:

Education & Society Dialogues

This event was the first of the new Education & Society Dialogues series, which will be addressing these questions and more.

Sign up to hear about future events >

In this story

Sara Black

Sara Black

Lecturer in Education and Society

Related links

Latest news