Working Paper 37

Local and global public good contributions of higher education in China

Published June 2018

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Dr Lin Tian and Professor Nian Cai Liu from Shanghai Jiao Tong University look at how to define and measure public/common goods in higher education in China.

From a series of interviews with government officials and university academics, the authors identify four main ways in which Chinese higher education contributes to (global) public and common goods.

The first is by producing talent (with global perspectives) which enhances social and economic development. The second is by producing research that solves challenging problems and improves human wellbeing. The third is by producing public services – including public engagement activities and policy suggestions. The fourth is by maintaining a cultural inheritance and by innovating. Higher education in China also contributes significantly to social mobility.

The findings reveal the dominant role of the Chinese government. The vast majority of participants considered that public good is closely related to government funding and assumed that government controls higher education priorities in China.

In terms of measurement, while scientific research outputs can be measured by indicators, this is not necessarily the case for intangible goods. The authors suggest that surveys of university reputation in relation to their public good activities and a census measuring how many people benefit from higher education may be helpful.

The authors point out that higher education in China is not a pure public good as it is fee-charging and selective. They suggest defining higher education instead as a ‘common good’. They conclude that if higher education is to be seen as a (global) common good, universities need to cooperate rather than focus on self-interest, and to construct a community with a shared future. They also highlight the importance of serving the local and the national public/common good at the same time as the global common good.

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