Higher Education Strategy Associates

Stop Saying Higher Education is a Public Good

Few things drive me crazier than when people claim higher education is a public good, and then claim that, on that basis, it deserves either: a) more public funding, or b) needs to be funded exclusively on a public basis.  This argument represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what the term “public good” actually means.

When most people hear the phrase “public good”, they’re probably thinking something like, “it’s good, it’s publicly funded; therefore, it’s a public good”.  But  that rationale is tautological.  In fact, claims for public funding on the basis of a good being “public” rests on a much narrower definition.  Here, I’d urge everyone to read Frances Wooley’s excellent summary of this issue entitled, “Why public goods are a pedagogical bad”.  To qualify as a public good, the good has to be both non-rival (that is, one person using it does not diminish others’ ability to use it), and non-excludable (that is, once provided it is difficult to prevent people from using – e.g. lighthouses).  The number of goods to which that might actually apply is very, very small, and higher education certainly isn’t one of them.  Classroom space is very definitely rival, and it is trivially easy to exclude people from education – no money, no degree.  Higher education is thus a private good.  One with many public benefits, for sure, but private nonetheless.

Why does it matter if people call it a public good?  Because in all your basic economic textbooks, public goods are the goods that all (or nearly all) think should be publicly funded.  When people say something is a pubic good, they’re actually launching an (erroneous) appeal to economic authority as a basis for public funding.

Now, just because something isn’t a public good doesn’t mean there’s no case for a subsidy: it just means there’s no automatic case for it.  Health care, welfare, and employment insurance are not public goods, but there’s still a very good case to be made for all of them in terms of a public insurance function – that is, it’s cheaper to collectively insure against ill health, job loss, and poverty than it is to make people do it themselves.

Sometimes there’s a case for government subvention due to obvious market failure – most student loans come under this category (markets have a hard time funding human capital), as does public funding of research (some types of research won’t be undertaken by the private sector because of the size of the externalities).

So it’s fine to say there is a public purpose to higher education.  And it’s fine to say higher education has many public benefits.  But saying higher education is a public good, and therefore deserves full public financing, is simply wrong.  If we’re going to have sensible conversations about higher education financing, the least we can do is get the terminology right.

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15 Responses to Stop Saying Higher Education is a Public Good

  1. Colleen says:

    The traditional ideal was that education was for the (not a) public good meant that it advanced knowledge, had a socially just component, it was a search for truth, and developed engaged civic citizens. It wasn’t until globalization and specifically neoliberalism thwarted that ideal in favor of competition for developing learning commodities for the ‘knowledge economy. Hence what we have is an agenda for privatizing every last social institution, creating an exorbitant debt burden for students, and competitive academic darwinism amongst faculty. Infusing economic parameters for human development and learning fails miserably. It cannot be reduced to auditing or quantification. The mind is a terrible thing to privatize or commodify. this battle is on the semantics, however the deeper battle is for the soul of high education.

    • Alex Usher says:

      Can I ask whose traditional ideal? And when did this traditional ideal exist? As far back as you can go, higher education has at least partially been about advancing professional careers, not about advancing knowledge: Bologna was a law school, Salerno a school for doctors. In most of the world even today, undergraduate education is about transmission of knowledge and not advancement of it. And in no place at any time has “developing engaged citizens” ever been the primary reason for public funding of higher education.

    • Laura Servage says:

      Colleen, it seems to me that Alex has only clarified the meaning of a “public good.” He’s right. It’s not. I’m not sure where you are getting your idea of what a “traditional” perspective on education is. “Traditional” higher education was elitist and exclusionary. It kind of drives me nuts when people appeal to this mythic, ideal past (before neo-liberalism) when in fact, in that past, higher education was accessed (and valued) by a small liberal elite. I’m not saying the present state of affairs isn’t dog-eat-dog. It is. But you can’t appeal to the “good old days” as if there was a time in the past where everyone wanted, had, and cared about learning.

      • Sean Lawrence says:

        Colleen didn’t say that there was such a time or that the view of education was unanimous. And neither matter, because you can’t judge an ideal empirically, anyway. Aristotle talked of the value of education, as did Dewey. They valued it and thought it good for the public though they certainly didn’t live in times of free tuition. That education ought to be widely available is an ideal witnessed by most every attempt to broaden access or reduce cost-barriers. And it seems to be an ideal that is currently in retreat.

        Such valuing of education might not make it a “public good” in a narrow economic sense, but it does make it good for the public, which is another reasonable meaning of the phrase and, pace Alex, what I believe is often meant by it.

  2. Sean Lawrence says:

    Would erudition be a public good? It’s non-rival (you reading Plato doesn’t mean I can’t read Plato) and non-excludable (it’s hard to keep people from reading Plato).

    Then education would be the promotion of a public good.

    • Alex Usher says:

      Erudition isn’t a good. And even if it were, erudition =/= education. And if you try to say one depends upon the other, then you’re quickly back into the problems that space on campus is rivalrous and it’s reasonably easy to exclude people from it.

      • Sean Lawrence says:

        It certainly is a good in the Platonic sense.

        It strikes me that this is like many other questions: water is free, given by God from above, but water purification equipment isn’t. This doesn’t mean that, as a society, we should keep water (or erudition) away from people who can’t pay for it. Just because something has costs to provide doesn’t mean it should be provided on a for-profit basis.

        • Alex Usher says:

          Right. But I don’t argue that. (also – difference between for-profit and cost-recovery basis).

          • Sean says:

            Quite so. I think that part of our problem is that “public good” is a term of art in economics, whereas the usual argument seems closer to a recognition that education is a good (in the Platonic sense, like beauty or truth) which ought to be public.

  3. Stan says:

    It would be interesting to see someone try to carve out those bits of education that can be made a public good and argue for funding these.
    For example, once research is freely accessible online it becomes a public good. Similary course material on ItunesU or Coursera becomes a public good.
    Not all public goods are worth their cost but that is the next argument on a case by case basis.

    • Dan says:

      Agreed Stan. to expand on that, are many of the services institutions of higher education provide not public services? For instance, academic upgrading, community outreach etc. I’m not arguing that education is a public good per say, but I agree with many of the comments here that many of the functions of the institution are designed to serve the greater public.

  4. Laura Servage says:

    Hmmm… well maybe we can distinguish between learning and credentials? Learning or “erudition” can, I suppose, be “:non-rival goods.” But *credentials* and the resources to bring them to be are most certainly rival and excusionary!

  5. Sam Popowich says:

    There seems to be a confusion here between instruction and education, and between an (economic) good (as in “goods and services tax”) and good as in benefit.

    Even at its most exclusionary and elitist, education was seen as beneficial to society (because the elite were what gave society its character; which is why the elite is often known as “the quality”). That society was narrowly defined and exclusionary doesn’t change that. In this sense, then, education was seen as a public good, a benefit to the public. Instruction wasn’t the main concern – leaving aside programs of study such as history, greats, etc, many of those who took instruction in what we would no consider practical or applied subjects never worked in those fields. Work was for the middle and lower classes. Education was not. It seems like a mistake to me to confuse “a public good” (in an economic sense) and “the public good” in a social sense. Our understanding of what’s good for society has changed, but we still recognize that some things are and some things aren’t good for society, whether or not they’re economic goods.

    Conflating instruction and education is equally problematic. Education (“to lead out of” ignorance) is a much broader activity than instruction. Without being clear when instruction is meant, rather than when education is meant, the argument becomes murky.

  6. Anon says:

    Lol @ “rationale is tautological.” I think you need to take a critical look at your own reasoning: “It is trivially easy to exclude people from education – no money, no degree.” What you’ve just said is that it’s not a public good because it’s a private good. That’s, by definition, a tautology. Any standard accepted public good (even your lighthouse) can be make private by hypothetical (i.e. you have to call ahead to the lighthouse to get it turned on, but only if you can show you paid your lighthouse fee).

    What you’ve really down is shown you don’t understand what excludability means in this context: It’s not about being excluded from the good, but being excluded from the -benefit- of the good. Example: Defence is a public good. Any single person can be excluded from the military. But no one can be easily excluded from reaping the -benefit- of defense. The same is true of education. Unless of course you believe education has no societal benefit for those that don’t obtain it… which is maybe what you really believe.

  7. Jon says:

    Primary education is universal and non-excluded. It teaches literacy and numeracy, which is a very clear social good, but the recipient of that primary education gains only a neglible private benefit. Secondary education starts delivering a fairly significant private benefit in preparing recipients for entry-level poorly-paid employment. Tertiary education — while delivering some social gains — really equips the recipient for highly-paid work, meaning that the key beneficiary of tertiary education is the private person receiving it rather than society at large. It’s a ” private good”, not a public good.

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