Utopian possibilities and obstacles (1 of 2)

January 10, 2013

Notwithstanding my huge respect for Ronald Barnett, I would like to take issue with his characterisation of what he calls "the public-good theorists" ("Head in the clouds, feet on the ground", 3 January). I am not a "theorist" but I write from the perspective that he is characterising - or possibly caricaturing.

The argument for higher education as a public good is not, as Barnett suggests, based on a monolithic view of "the public". Nor does it deny the contestability of knowledge. On the contrary, the "public-good" defence of higher education is based on the recognition of plurality and difference as intrinsic to the human condition - and as a precondition of human understanding.

The seeming paradox is that if we want higher education to deliver fully on its private gains, then we must respect the public goods of which it is constituted. Universities make a huge public contribution through undergraduate and postgraduate education, research and scholarship and vital links to local economies and cultures. As a result of that public contribution, some individuals undoubtedly accrue private gain. One of the questions posed by what Barnett terms the public-good theorists is how to ensure that public good and private gain are fairly matched in the funding of higher education.

Far from being either negatively dystopian or unrealistically utopian, the idea of the university as a common space within which to share the public goods of higher education is a highly "feasible utopia".

Jon Nixon, Kendal, Cumbria.

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