Working paper 1

Public/private in higher education: a synthesis of economic and political approaches

Published June 2016

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Professor Simon Marginson outlines a new approach to understanding how universities contribute to the public good.

This paper addresses the problem of how to define the public contribution of universities. Public benefits are rarely associated with plausible measures, as economic and political notions of ‘public’ and ‘private’ vary.

In higher education, the marketing ethos that has gripped many universities places an emphasis on private benefits – an emphasis that is often used to justify tuition regimes. From this point of view, the public dimension of a university is narrowly defined in terms of a market economy in which individual gains are key.

But what about the public benefits that cannot be measured by economic markets? Universities and their global networked communities have broad-ranging impacts on society in many domains. They also provide space for criticism, and challenge and create new public formations in countries worldwide.

Existing definitions of ‘public’ and ‘private’ are ambiguous. Some social scientists use a state/non-state distinction to define public and private (the political definition). Other social scientists use a non-market/market distinction (the economic definition).

Professor Marginson creates a new framework that combines these different approaches. This enables clear, unambiguous definitions of public/private in four domains: civil society, social democracy, state quasi-markets, commercial markets. This enables a fuller understanding of universities’ contribution to national and global society.

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