Higher education as a global common good

21 March 2018

Simon Marginson, Professor for International Higher Education and Director of the Centre for Global Higher Education, speaks at IIEP Strategic Debate on Higher Education as a Common Good.

Higher education has expanded rapidly over the past 40 years. Enrolments have more than doubled in a decade – from 100 million in 2000, to 214 million in 2015 – far exceeding the rate of growth of worldwide population or GDP. Public funding for higher education has consequently come under pressure, with the burden of cost is increasingly shifted on to students and their families. Today, about one-third of all higher education students are enrolled in private institutions.

This situation has led to a vigourous debate about who should pay for higher education. Key questions are who benefits from higher education, and whether it is predominantly a public or a private good. 

Professor Simon Marginson, Director of the Centre for Global Higher Education, came to IIEP to discuss this issue, as part of IIEP’s Strategic Debate series. The debate was well attended, and Marginson’s informative analysis led to lively discussion among IIEP’s guests. 

There is strong research evidence of the many benefits higher education brings to the individual. But the collective benefits – be they economic, social, or educational – are more difficult to demonstrate and measure. But Marginson made the case that higher education brings collective benefits, elaborating on the notions of higher education as both a public and a common good. Understanding higher education as a ‘common good’, he posited, is the most useful approach, as it better encompasses the multiple benefits of higher education for society and the international community. 

Much of the discussion is not about ‘common good’ but about ‘public good’. Marginson noted that a ‘public good’ is defined in economic theory as one that is non-rivalrous (i.e. it can be consumed without being depleted) and non-excludable (no one is excluded from consuming it). In cases where public goods, such as certain types of research, are under-produced in economic markets, public investment in them is justified to ensure they are produced for overall public well-being. 

Some other goods, explained Marginson, may be understood as either public or private goods – for example, teaching positions and student places, depending on whether access to higher education is within a competitive and/or stratified system offering differential benefits to students. Such goods can further be defined as either state- or non-state-produced, which is another and different meeting of ‘public’. To illustrate the different ways that educational goods are understood within different contexts, Marginson provided a graph with four quadrants representing four different situations with two extremes (higher education as a commercial market and higher education as a social democracy). 

Higher education systems in many countries have created opportunity hierarchies, with elite institutions at the top providing graduates with individual benefits in terms of careers and salaries, contributing to societal stratification. Marginson proposed an alternative to this model, whereby higher education is envisaged as a common good, providing equal opportunity for as many as possible in the interest of a more rights-based, egalitarian, and cohesive society. This does not necessarily mean that all higher education should be publicly provided, or publicly funded, but private institutions should be regulated to ensure they contribute to the public purpose of higher education. 

Countries around the globe organize their higher education within different traditions and conceptions of what is public and common. Marginson gave the example of the Republic of Korea, where higher education is largely privately funded, but closely regulated.

Marginson concluded with the argument that higher education needs to be envisaged as a global common good. Within the context of increased globalization, higher education institutions are interacting beyond national boundaries and have become networked spaces for free enquiry and learning.  Yet, there is no global state to maximize distributional equity, and to ensure that a truly global common good is produced. There is a strong case for international organizations to embrace this role, as much as their funding and position allows. 

Michaela Martin, IIEP programme specialist for higher education, commented that the boundaries between public and private higher education have become increasingly blurred, with a growing share of private investment in higher education. In order to rationalize the debate over who should pay for higher education, she said, it would be useful to more clearly determine and measure the benefits, which are economic, social, and educational, and both individual and collective. The educational benefits for students tend to be neglected; students value their higher education experience, not just because of improved employment prospects, but because it contributes to personal and intellectual advancement. 

Martin referred to the Education 2030 Agenda, whose target 4.3 encourages countries to ‘provide equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality TVET, including university’.  This is clearly a conception of higher education as a global public good. IIEP has produced research on this topic, and Martin referred the audience to the GEM/IIEP Policy Paper ‘Six ways to ensure higher education leaves no one behind’, which offers  guidance on how developing countries can provide both equitable admission policies and funding systems. 


#StrategicDebate: watch the livestream by clicking here

And find the slides of the presentation here: 
Simon Marginson presentation