Working Paper 100
Higher Education and Public Good: Perceptions of Practitioners and Policy Professionals in England
Published August 2023

In Anglophone neoliberal jurisdictions, policy highlights the private goods associated with higher education but largely neglects the sector’s contributions to public good not measurable as economic values, including non-pecuniary individual benefits and collective social outcomes. Governments are silent on the existence and funding of most public goods. The paper reports on understandings of the public good role of higher education in the UK, primarily England, part of a cross-national comparison of 11 countries. It consisted of review of major policy reports; and 24 semi-structured interviews, in contrasting universities (13) and among higher education policy professionals (11) including policy makers and regulators, national organisations, and experts on higher education. England has no policy language for talking about outcomes of higher education other than attenuated performative outputs such as graduate salaries, research impact, knowledge exchange, and widening participation, understood as individual access to education as a private good. Awareness of multiple public goods has been suppressed to justify successive fee increases and the imposition of a market in the centralised English system. This has coincided with a shift from direct government funding and collaborative stewardship to student funding and top-down regulation. Nearly all interviewees, including the policy makers, advocated an open-ended public good role and provided many examples of public goods in higher education, though the concepts lacked clarity. The policy notion of a zero-sum relation of private and public outcomes, corresponding to the split of private/public costs, was rejected in favour of a positive-sum relation of private and public outcomes.