Gats: a public good?

November 18, 2005

Your article "SA claims free trade will undermine national values" (November 11) quotes the chief executive of the South African Council on Higher Education (Saleem Badat) as asserting that "higher education has no business being in Gats". He says that this policy rests on the "principle that education is a public good rather than a market-led commodity".

It is a pity that South African government policy is so ill-informed. Professor Badat doesn't understand the concept of a public good. This concept has a clearly defined meaning in economics, where it originated. The "public good" idea refers to those rare goods/commodities that, unless their provision is financed through the public budget, will not be provided to the degree individuals would wish because people can enjoy the benefits without necessarily paying for them. The "free rider"

problem is serious in such cases.

Higher education is not one of these goods/commodities. The benefits of higher education accrue almost totally to those individuals who obtain qualifications. They generally enjoy higher lifetime incomes than those without such qualifications. And, as international experience makes clear, there are no significant free rider problems in the financing and provision of higher education.

There may be good and sufficient reasons for higher education to be excluded from Gats, but they have nothing to do with "public goods".

Doug Blackmur

University of the Western Cape

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