by Simon Marginson

World-class universities and the global common good

Professor Simon Marginson highlights the essential roles of world-class universities in advancing the global common good in University World News.

The OECD publishes data on the contribution of higher education to relational common goods. The consistent story is that higher education contributes to graduate agency which in turn builds sociability. For example, there is a close association between graduation and possessing skills in information and communications technology – electronic sociability.

Also, people who complete tertiary education are 16% more likely to believe they have a say in government than people who left before upper secondary.

On average 20% more people who complete tertiary education said that they trust others, compared to early secondary leavers. Solidaristic trust reaches close to 50% in the Nordic countries.

World-class universities contribute to the common good in another way.

The philosopher Jürgen Habermas famously identifies a ‘public sphere’ located on the edge of the state, adjoining civil society. His example is late 17th century London with its network of salons, coffee houses and broadsheets that together constituted public opinion and provided a critical reflexivity for the state.

Universities operate in analogous fashion as semi-independent adjuncts of government, a source of constructive criticism, strategic options and expert information that helps state and public to reach considered opinions.

In many countries, some of the time, the university is a zone of reasoned argument and contending values. American higher education has been the medium for successive political-socio-cultural transformations, such as the 1960s civil rights movement.

This idea of critical policy-related discussion adjoining the state has resonance in China, where leading national universities perform the Habermasian role in criticism, debate and innovation on the inside edge of the party-state, rather than outside and as part of civil society as in the US. Peking University was the starting point for most 20th century political movements in China.

One test of the contribution of world-class universities to the common good is the extent to which they provide space for criticism, challenge, controversy and new public forms.

Global common goods

Many other examples of common goods can be cited. However, the common goods associated with higher education are under-recognised and this contributes to their under-financing and under-provision. The exceptions are jurisdictions such as the Nordic where education is openly treated by the whole society as a shared benefit and a universal right.

Global common goods in higher education, while understood by many people working in world-class universities, are even more liable to be underestimated by governments and the community.

Global public goods in economic terms are goods with a significant element of non-rivalry and-or non-excludability that affect a plurality of countries.

Global common goods, a sub-set of global public goods, are broadly available across populations in more than one group of countries and contribute to human capability, sociability and solidarity within and between nations. The world system of publicly accessible scientific knowledge is a good example.

Arguably, the most fundamental global common good maintained by world-class universities is the networked global space for free inquiry and dissemination. All indicators show that cross-border cooperation is increasing, for example, the data on joint publications.

The intellectual tradition inherited by European world-class universities has been extended to many more universities. Here academic freedom, not institutional autonomy, is decisive. University autonomy has always been partial.

World-class universities are largely creatures of the nation-state era and accountable for the public (and private) goods they create. However, the key feature of the European university form is that these institutions, being semi-independent of both church and state, harboured a shared mental zone controlled by neither.

It remains crucial that scholars and researchers make the positive decisions about research and teaching, while world-class universities protect them from coercion by state or market. Here events in Turkey and the Hungarian government’s attempt to suppress the Central European University in Budapest are of great concern.

Free mobility

Free mobility is another crucial global common good.

Higher education and mobility form a common interdependent system, together fostering people with distinct attributes. On one hand, global mobility is integral to knowledge systems and cross-border learning in world-class universities and beyond.

On the other hand, many studies show that cross-border experience facilitates attributes such as cosmopolitan tolerance, cross-cultural awareness, knowledge of foreign languages and international understanding; and also flexibility in the face of difference and change, awareness of self-identity, confidence and self-determining agency.

These effects arise whether cross-border mobility is financed by families, or by governments or universities, although distribution of the attributes is more equitable with public financing.

Not all students and faculty in world-class universities have cross-border experiences. Yet higher education augments everybody’s capacity for mobility.

The OECD’s Perspectives on Global Development 2017: International migration in a shifting world compares the cross-border mobility of people with, and without, university degrees. For those without degrees the tendency to move across borders is correlated to income. As income rises people are more likely to move. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

But among those with degrees the pattern is different. First, at a given level of income, those with degrees are more mobile than those without: higher education democratises mobility. Second, for those with degrees, as income rises, once a modest threshold level is reached there is little change in mobility.

The propensity to travel is income inelastic. In other words, in helping graduates to greater personal agency in the domain of mobility, higher education weakens the effects of economic determinism on their imaginings, choices and decisions.

Significantly, degree level education directly constitutes greater personal freedoms. This is a very clear example of the way higher education in itself augments the common good.

World-class universities

World-class universities can also contribute to the common good, within nations and worldwide, within the system of social opportunities in higher education. Here the effects of world-class universities are less automatic and more ambiguous and vary between countries.

The growth of tertiary education, like the evolution of capitalist societies, is socially and geographically uneven. In all countries, places that offer significant positional advantages for individuals are often captured by students from the affluent families best able to compete, reinforcing starting inequalities.

Low-income families and rural students are under-represented, especially in selective programmes and world-class universities. Poor students are more likely to drop out or to access low quality institutions in stratified systems.

These patterns limit possible upward mobility and undermine higher education as a common good. But the extent of inequality varies at both institutional and national levels.

For example, the public University of California system takes in high numbers of students from low-income families despite the fact that the United States is a highly unequal society.

Yet some other world-class universities are seen by government and by their own marketing departments solely as producers of valuable private goods. However, the private goods role is defensible only when there is genuine commitment to opening up to under-represented families at scale.

The crucial issue is the extent to which higher education is inclusive, especially of low-income people and those outside cities. As noted, higher education confers on graduates relational attributes, an advanced agency and sociability.

As the boundary of participation advances and tertiary education becomes the norm, those without access to the agency become especially disadvantaged. They lack not only the job opportunities, but have less of the personal skills and confidence and flexibility associated with graduates.

Making the case

At global level there is a parallel set of equity issues – and at global level equity is impossible to regulate consistently because there is no global state. World-class universities can practise their own principles of fairness and justice, but there is no means to devise a general rule.

At worst international education provides privileged access to cross-border students with the private means to pay who often leverage their foreign degrees to secure better careers when they return home, enhancing social and economic stratification. This makes it essential to foster the scholarship-based mobility of students from modest backgrounds.

The present and future contributions of higher education and science are enormous. Above all, collaboration between world-class universities feeds the slow historical process whereby the different national societies, without ceasing to be diverse, are becoming part of a one-world society.

We need to become much better in social science terms, in identifying, observing and measuring (where possible) the contribution of world-class universities and other institutions, indeed whole national systems, to the common good and to the furthering of global society.

We will also need to consider equitable ways of financing global common goods in higher education and of managing cross-border downsides such as brain drain. We also need to work harder on making our international work beneficial at local level and many are focused on this.

We need to focus more closely, explicitly and precisely on the public and common good role of world-class universities, in all of their practices, and to do so in a manner which foregrounds and respects the values that we share – above all Ren, human enrichment, including academic freedom and knowledge sharing – and also foregrounds the diversity of common goods in the sector.

When international tensions are rising, the benefits of globalisation are widely questioned and national identity is being stridently asserted, there is a real danger that the knowledge-making sector can become sidelined, despite its great recent growth and its deep long-term potential for human formation and social transformation.

At this time, it is both more difficult and more crucial to balance the global, national and local contributions of world-class universities, while advancing their essential role in building the global common good.