Working Paper 114
Higher Education and Public and Common Good
Published April 2024

Higher education institutions generate multiple education, epistemic, economic, political, social and cultural outcomes but theory and policy lack satisfactory frameworks for defining, explaining, observing and regulating the full range of activity. In particular, in Anglophone jurisdictions, outcomes other than individual pecuniary benefits – both the broader formation of individual students, and the collective and relational outcomes for societies – are not well understood. The paper has been developed out of a comparative study of the non-pecuniary outcomes of higher education in ten countries. This non-pecuniary domain is variously understood using the English language terms ‘public good(s)’ and ‘common good(s)’, and their lexical equivalents in other languages. This paper does not focus on the comparative aspect, which is discussed elsewhere (e.g. Marginson & Yang, 2022). Rather it probes more deeply into the English language term ‘public’ and associated usages such as ‘public sector’, the ‘public good’, ‘public opinion’ and ‘public/private goods’. These terms are not universal but are grounded in Euro-American (Western) and specifically, Anglophone political culture.

Interpretations of ‘public’ in higher education are normative and political rather than solely technical, and shaped by the agents who exercises the judgment. The paper reviews the different Anglophone meanings associated with ‘public’ and ‘common’ good(s), in higher education, situating these in the evolution of Western relations between the individual and society, and the impact of neo-liberalism in higher education policy. While the ‘public sector’ as government is common to higher education in almost all countries, Anglophone economic policy in higher education works with a distinctive understanding of ‘public goods’ that diminishes recognition of the non-pecuniary outcomes of higher education. In this framework ‘public goods’ are limited to non-rivalry and non-excludability. This Anglophone reduction means that ‘common good’, grounded in collaborative practices involving diverse public and private agents, is more helpful than ‘public good’ in understanding collective outcomes in higher education; though in addition to the contribution of grass-roots communities to common goods, proactive states also have an essential role to play. The paper finds that ‘global common good’ is again more useful than ‘global public good’ in explaining worldwide collaboration. Knowledge is a global common good but global science must be opened up to non-English language knowledge. The paper closes with suggestions about lines of further inquiry into public and common good(s) in higher education.