US public research universities are “fraying at the edges” and will struggle to compete with private institutions unless their contribution to the public good is better acknowledged.
This is the view of Simon Marginson, professor of international higher education at the Institute of Education, University of London, who said that as American states “sharply cut subsidies” for higher education institutions, flagship public universities are becoming less competitive in hiring leading faculty.
Professor Marginson made the points while delivering one of his talks for the Clark Kerr Lecture series on the role of higher education in society in California, which took place earlier this month.
He said that public universities such as the University of California, Berkeley would struggle against private institutions such as Stanford University unless they raised tuition fees or “secured more philanthropy”.
There must be a change in the way universities are seen, he said, to acknowledge the “public good functions of higher education”.
“Policy in many countries focuses primarily on the private benefits of higher education, such as earnings or the social status of graduates,” he said.
“However…it is clear many of its outcomes are not captured as private benefits for individuals, but are consumed jointly. They are collective. Institutions contribute to government, industrial innovation, social equity and the formation and reproduction of both knowledge and of relational human society.”
Other public outcomes of higher education include giving students social and scientific literacy capabilities, and fostering effective citizenship, connectedness and economic competence, but “these individual capabilities do not show up in the measured private benefits”, Professor Marginson said.
“How can we move beyond a solely economic understanding of public goods without setting aside economics? How do we measure public goods, while satisfying both inclusion and rigour?”
Professor Marginson noted that in California, “the very idea of public or common benefits, orchestrated by the state, is continually under fire from heavy ideological guns”.
“It is a mantra. Private good, public bad. Competition good, cooperation bad. Markets good, public planning bad,” he said. “In this setting state fiscal policy has become profoundly dysfunctional.”
By more precisely identifying global public goods that public higher education systems such as the one in California produce, “we can design and target strategies to enhance those goods, to our common benefit”, he concluded.
“Higher education has a deep capacity to address key global problems, such as ecological and social sustainability, that neither states nor markets alone are competent to solve. In sustaining and developing the Californian model of public higher education, and more precisely identifying the public goods that it produces, including the global public goods, there is much at stake.”
The “ultimate determinant” of the public character of the University of California system, added Professor Marginson, “is who gets in”.
“Students from poor families, and first-generation higher education students, are much better represented at Berkeley than at Stanford.”