Rediscovering the common good in higher education

Look to Canada and northern Europe for lessons on reducing inequality, says Simon Marginson

February 7, 2017

More than 50 per cent of the current cohort of school-leavers in the UK, Europe and North America will attend university during their lifetimes. This is an unprecedented level of inclusion and social reach. But is it leading to more integrated societies?

The UK and the US become more economically unequal by the day. US income inequality is the highest on record – even worse than before the American Civil War and the slave states. In the UK, local government cuts have bitten deeply into the welfare and housing services crucial to alleviating low pay and unemployment.

On top of the divided economy, there’s the divided and angry polity. Both electorates have been split down the middle, not on class or income lines, but on cultural lines – polarised between city dwellers relatively comfortable with migration and plural cultures, and blood-and-soil nationalists in small towns and rural districts who backed Brexit and Donald Trump.

Public “discussion” has become intensely toxic, with no end to the angst in sight.

What are Anglo-American universities and colleges doing to bridge these gaps? Is higher education part of the solution, or part of the problem?

Higher Education and the Common Good, written after the June 2016 Brexit decision, and as the Trump campaign was rising, explores the core question: “How can higher education better contribute to human sociability?” What changes are needed, particularly in Anglo-American higher education, to make more space for the common good?

The common good is not a new idea. A lucid statement of the balance between personal and societal good was provided by Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), which he wrote before The Wealth of Nations (1776).

“All members of human society stand in need of each other’s assistance. Humanity, justice, generosity and public spirit are the qualities most useful to others,” said Smith. “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.”

Dog does not eat dog

While Adam Smith strongly valued freedom of enterprise, he was equally strong in rejecting dog-eat-dog competition. Society, he said, “cannot subsist among those who at all times are ready to injure and hurt one another”. In other words, while we place ourselves and our families before others, we prefer to nest our self-interest in the common good.

Since Adam Smith, the common good has been underplayed in economics. In 1968 Garret Hardin argued, in The Tragedy of the Commons, that when everyone pursues their self-interest, common resources, such as communal grazing land, are inevitably used up – unless the state steps in to manage and limit use. Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences (in 2009), established that common resources such as water need not be congested and exhausted if viable cooperative systems are developed.

But, as Adam Smith pointed out, there is more to the common good than natural commons such as pasture or water. Equally important are the socially constructed common goods, the systems and structures that encourage and enable equitable opportunity, tolerance and civility, and respect for the rights, capability and agency of individuals. Higher education, with its broad social coverage, its formative influence on individuals and its cross-border role as one of the most internationalised of social sectors, should have a talent for producing common goods of the social kind.

At the same time, higher education also allocates graduates to social destinations. Everywhere families strive for the success of their children. Leading roles in the professions or business are in limited supply. Positional ambition (the desire to improve one’s station in life) is normal to all families and all societies, and it means that, some of the time, families compete with each other. The question is how education systems are configured in relation to this fact. Education can ensure that positional competition has a modest role and is balanced by equal rights, or it can intensify social competition, making outcomes more unequal.

Across the world there are variations in the forms and intensity of competition. In Nordic and German-speaking countries, governments counter-frame positional competition by structuring higher education as a common good. Relations are more solidaristic than in the US and the UK, with less scope for private advantage. Private cost and systemic institutional differentiation play smaller roles in structuring opportunity.

Social mobility: the litmus test

One outcome is that in the Nordic countries, Germany, the Netherlands, and also Canada, instead of recycling prior social inequalities through the next generation, there is widespread upward social mobility. This is not simply a result of education policy. More important factors are progressive taxation scales and wage-setting policy. Egalitarian policies on school and higher education are part of a larger consensus about social equality.

Higher Education and the Common Good makes three points about Anglo-American higher education. First, although its cultural bridging role is strong, it fails in economic bridging. Graduates are more cosmopolitan, tolerant and comfortable with global connections (as shown by their rejection of Brexit and Trump), but more could be done to fashion this sensibility into a constructive force in the community.

But the sector no longer counterbalances income inequality with enough social mobility. There are huge inequalities in resources and status in US universities. The Ivy League is flourishing while public education runs down. US higher education perpetuates and legitimates gross social inequality.

Second, the neoliberal economics of education hides the common good from view. This is discussed in critical chapters on the ultra-individualist reading of human capital theory in which higher education is a solely private good, the model of higher education as a winner/loser market, and university rankings that steeply stratify the sector.

Third, when scarce private goods of high value are on offer in education, they become the subject of intensive social competition, in which middle-class capture is inevitable. In this setting, it is impossible to provide a solidaristic system in which most people have access to educational opportunities of substantial value.

The most important factor in creating exclusive high-value private goods is not private tuition costs but the extent of stratification of value within the higher education system. When the value of the different student places is highly unequal, this fragments the potential for a shared commonality.

Here, intense competition and vertical stratification are closely linked, in that each produces the other. If policymakers in the US and the UK want to turn higher education into a sector that reduces inequality rather than making it worse, they must reduce stratification. Not by levelling down, but by levelling up: by lifting the second- and third-tier universities.

Simon Marginson is director of the Centre for Global Higher Education at the UCL Institute of Education.

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