Higher Education and the Public Good: Imagining the University

March 24, 2011

This is a book on the philosophy of higher education in the tradition of Aristotle. Its refreshing message is that higher education, properly conceived, reflects the relatedness of human beings, and that this and "reasoning together" promote and extend the public good.

Jon Nixon's message is poetic and idealistic, and there is not much here that uses current social scientific knowledge or data for defining or garnering the necessary public support for "the public good". The latter has two main meanings in the book: reducing inequality, and producing benefits for others. The book conceives of higher education almost as if it were, or should be, based in liberal-arts college settings with students studying humanities, ethics and the good society.

But it bypasses, until chapter eight, the immense specialisation of huge modern research universities, what most faculty actually do, and the remarkable fact that the largest segment of US undergraduates are now studying for job-related qualifications at community colleges (which may presage what is to come in the UK, via further education colleges). This is not all bad. The problem is that this reality has largely unexplored relations to "the public good".

There have been major advances in all of the social sciences that the philosophy of higher education should draw upon if it wishes to address "the public good" and how to achieve it. First, there is the basic distinction in economics between "efficiency" and "equity". The latter involves a moral judgement about the equitable distribution of income, as addressed in the book.

Kern Alexander has recently analysed degrees of equity ranging from Rawlsian positivism (extensive redistribution, righting society's wrongs) to commutative equity (let the market prevail, no redistribution). Redistribution involves zero-sum conflict, and each side believes the other is morally wrong. For example, Tea Party activists in the US (and perhaps some Tories in the UK) believe in commutative equity, arguing in essence: "I earned it and I have the right to keep it." They regard redistribution as theft.

"Reasoning together" will not eliminate such underlying, competing interests. Some people want smaller government, less public support for higher education, and less needs-based aid that can reduce inequality later. Without distinguishing between efficiency and equity, there is less capacity to "reason together" about higher education's relation to this aspect of Nixon's "public good".

In a new addition to the debate about distribution, psychology has obtained cardinal measurements of happiness from brainwaves. Richard Layard has observed that marginal additional happiness as income increases falls towards zero after about £13,000 per capita income. The maximisation of happiness or human wellbeing therefore could justify progressive taxation and support for more equal access to higher education.

The other main aspect of "the public good" in Nixon's book relates to the external social benefits that are helpful to others and future generations. These are part of economic efficiency. They include higher education's contributions to democracy, the rule of law, political stability, reduced prison and healthcare costs, and the creation and adaptation of new ideas.

These outcomes require supplemental public funding to support greater access to some disciplines and of some levels of education that are overlooked by proposals to publicly fund only science, technology and engineering disciplines. Inadequate public information about these benefits and their feedback effects on growth results in market failure and underfunding - a serious problem for "public goods" not analysed in the book. Trust, social cohesion, social capital and their relation to reduced inequality and "the public good" from sociology should also be part of the discussion.

Finally, the classic solution for the size of the public sector, as first outlined by Paul Samuelson, is one that maximises total social wellbeing, including an optimum income distribution, as if given by an omniscient ethical observer, to achieve economic efficiency including external social benefits. It recombines efficiency and equity components unknown to Aristotle to achieve Nixon's "public good". This approach, like this book, surely has a commendable goal.

Higher Education and the Public Good: Imagining the University

By Jon Nixon.

Continuum, 176pp, £70.00.

ISBN 9780826437433.

Published 11 November 2010.

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