Working paper 18

Public goods and public policy: what is public good, and who and what decides?

Published May 2017

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Overview

Professor Ellen Hazelkorn and Andrew Gibson from Dublin Institute of Technology ask how we should determine higher education’s contribution to society.

The paper highlights the fact that higher education is usually seen as serving the public good, especially when funded directly by the state. But what is the public good, and who or what defines it?

The authors argue that the concept has become more significant in response to growing demands for greater accountability in public organisations. Specific concerns about widening participation, costs, student debt and graduate employability have also led to an increased emphasis on higher education’s social role. Recent years have seen many governments adopt a national strategy or development plan for higher education, setting out national objectives.

But the interests that higher education serves vary depending upon who is asked (students, parents, employers, the media, politicians, etc) and can lead to tensions – for example, between university autonomy and public accountability. Taking Ireland, the Netherlands, the US and the UK as examples, the authors investigate the changing nature of how higher education serves the public good and how public benefit is conceived. They show that the factors leading to these shifts can be social, political, as well as economic.

The authors conclude that for tensions around public good objectives to be resolved, universities need to engage in open discussion with the public. Different interests need not be mutually exclusive, and being responsive to society can give universities’ own goals legitimacy in a wider sense.

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