by Lin Tian

A shift to the global common good in higher education

Dr Lin Tian, Yan Wu and Professor Nian Cai Liu discuss the difference between a common good and public good in higher education in University World News.

In 2015, UNESCO published a report, Rethinking Education: Towards a Global Common Good, which proposed that the common good should be seen as a constructive alternative to the public good (the latter being traditionally seen as being closely associated with education and its outputs).

However, this informative and inspiring report does not have much to say about higher education and world-class universities or WCUs, which are inseparable constituents of any strategy for national capacity building.

This November, based on UNESCO’s report and in order to stimulate further discussions about higher education, WCUs and global common good, the Center for World-Class Universities at China’s Shanghai Jiao Tong University will hold a conference with the theme “World-class universities: Towards a global common good and seeking national and institutional contributions”.

Higher education has long been considered as a public good, with its purpose being to disseminate knowledge and contribute to the development of society, whose benefits trickle down to all human beings. However, this notion has been challenged.

First, it is argued that the growing privatisation and increasing marketisation of higher education damage the ‘public’ side of higher education to some extent and also blur the boundary between ‘public’ and ‘private’. Second, the changing global landscape, driven by new knowledge and technological evolution, places more emphasis on ‘common’ good over ‘public’ good.

According to UNESCO’s report, a ‘common good’ has an intrinsic value that is shared, that encourages people to be proactive in a shared learning process and to engage in lifelong learning through various channels. It brings benefits to all participants and transforms the education process into a learning one.

In light of this, it is better for higher education to shift from the idea of a ‘public good’ to a ‘common good’ since the latter means that ‘irrespective of any public or private origin, these goods are characterised by a binding goal and are necessary for the realisation of the fundamental rights of all people’ and that ‘goods of this kind are therefore inherently common in their ‘production’ as well as in their benefits’.

This would mean higher education would move past the argument over whether it is a public or a private good, meaning more emphasis could be placed on its ‘results’ (the realisation of fundamental rights for all people) rather than the ‘method of supply’ (that is, whether that is delivered by a public or private institution).

Also, to a certain extent, the idea of higher education as a common good could justify the idea of diversified providers and financing of higher education, which can in certain cases bring greater efficiency.

Moreover, when we think about the current demand for active and lifelong learning, it is clear that the notion of a common good may complement the concept of a public good.

A public good does not link pay (a person’s involvement in the provision of a public good) and use (his or her use of it): a public good is open to free-riding whereas a common good highlights the collective endeavour of all participants and its benefits are generated through the shared action.

WCUs’ mission of serving a global common good

This new era, which is marked by globalisation and internationalisation, new information technologies, environmental concerns and dramatic policy changes such as Brexit, brings both opportunities and challenges for higher education institutions around the world.

In addition to providing opportunities for self-development, world-class universities, the world’s leading or elite universities, need to position themselves in the forefront of seeking conceptual and practical solutions to the pressing challenges of our time for the benefit of all mankind.

In this regard, WCUs serve not only ‘social interests’ and contribute to ‘public goods’ in which ‘human well-being is framed by individualistic socio-economic theory’, they emphasise the interconnectedness of the world and highlight the well-being of global communities, thereby serving a global common good. This can be demonstrated in their three major functions, talent cultivation, scientific research and social service.

After analysing the mission reports of the top 20 universities (which are widely acknowledged as WCUs) in the Academic Ranking of World Universities, the main keywords (those which appear the most frequently) relating to their three functions can be generalised as:

  • Talent cultivation: international/global; world-class/excellent/best/outstanding; research-led/research-based; professional/skills; innovative/creative; diverse; inspiring; interdisciplinary; inclusive/open/free.
  • Scientific research: excellence/world-class/highest-level; international(ly)/global /world; cooperation(s)/partnership; new/cutting-edge/original; knowledge/scholarship; interdisciplinary/cross-disciplinary/transdisciplinary; challenging/difficult.
  • Social service: social/society; world/international/global; community(ies); nation/national; cooperation(s)/coordination(s)/partnership/interaction(s); engage/engagement; challenge(s)/challenging; excellent/significant; mankind/human-beings; life/well-being/welfare.

In terms of talent cultivation, WCUs are making efforts to create a pool of human capital that consists of the most outstanding talent and functions as a national and global resource.

In terms of scientific research, WCUs aim to conduct the most advanced research and discover state-of-the-art knowledge, and tackle challenging global problems in order to improve human well-being.

With regard to social service, WCUs aim to address the most complex and difficult global challenges for the benefit of human society, transforming the world and contributing to the sustainable and peaceful development of everyone, benefiting all mankind in the areas of economy, culture, politics and environmental protection and building a more inclusive and just world.

WCUs, as leading global research universities, have already transcended the concept of ‘public’ and ‘private’ through their emphasis on human development, global interconnectedness and well-being.

WCUs not only constitute a global common good, they produce global common goods such as advanced knowledge and excellent research that address shared human issues, and more importantly, they help to shape and realise other global common goods (social mobility, social equality, a decreased crime rate and technology development). Therefore WCUs serve as a very important global common good.

As Nicholas Dirks, former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, said: “Now, more than ever, the progress we make in confronting salient global challenges and opportunities will depend on the ability of universities around the world to collaborate, coordinate and share knowledge.”

Therefore, WCUs should nurture world-class education, research and serve society through embracing opportunities, confronting challenges and enhancing sustainable development for the benefit of the whole world.