It is widely agreed that higher education contributes to the public dimension of society, producing benefits that aren’t confined to individuals. Yet the public benefits of higher education are untheorised, poorly defined and not readily measured and, as a result, higher education tends to be undervalued and under-financed.
Higher education is shaped by the roles of state, university and family, and their relationship to one another. This has an impact on higher education policy and funding, law and governance, and accountability. The roles of state, university and family, the relations between them, and the language and practices of these relations, also affect our understandings of public (and private) goods.
Countries differ on these matters, according to variations in political culture, educational culture, policy and regulation, and patterns of social use of higher education. Universities can be understood as being located in the state or, alternatively, in ‘the market’/civil society.
Social science theories of the ‘public’, the ‘common’ and ‘social benefit’ also vary. When measuring the benefits of universities, some social scientists use a state/non-state distinction to define ‘public’ and ‘private’ benefits (the political definition). Other social scientists use a non-market/market distinction (the economic definition).
This project takes a comparative approach, using contrasting case studies from six countries. It starts with a conceptual framework that reconciles the contrasting political and economic definitions, and aims to develop a comprehensive framework and method for conceiving, monitoring, measuring and judging the public benefits of universities.
The benefits under scrutiny include both national public goods and global public goods. The researchers intend the framework to be generic, in that it will be effectively applicable to higher education in all countries. Hence the need for contrasting national case study research, including interviews with personnel from government, higher education, other organisations and international agencies.