Project 1.1

Local and global public good contributions of higher education: a comparative study in six national systems

Project methods

Each case study encompasses:

  • 30 semi-structured interviews across two contrasting higher education institutions, a leading research university and a less prestigious engineering/technology institution, and policymakers and system managers in national government.
  • Study of monographs and current documents. Interviews are also conducted at the OECD and World Bank. There will be 200 interviews over three years. The empirical inquiry: * explores concepts and definitions used, including bilingual work on variations between languages in relation to the key concepts; * and inquires into activity, using a set of descriptors/indicators of ‘public’ higher education activity that has been devised on the basis of the prior literature on public goods in higher education, and a working definition of public/private activity in the sector that draws on both economic and political notions of the public/private distinction (see figure below).
Public/private framework Marginson

Both quadrants (1) and (2), which create the ‘working hypothesis’ about public goods to be used in the empirical research, derive from the Anglo-American and Western European experience.

One methodological feature of this project is that the only way to observe the object of study is to develop a working hypothesis of what constitutes the ‘public’ dimension of higher education, but this hypothesis must be reflexive, open to continuing adjustment on the basis of new empirical material.

It is inevitable that the notions of ‘public’ used in the project will change in the light of the encounter with other major traditions such as the Nordic and the East Asian. Each time the working hypothesis changes it becomes necessary to reassess the prior evidence, possibly even to gather part of it again, so as to sustain the comparative aspect of the project. The goal of the project is a settled form of that hypothesis that no longer requires continued adjustment in the light of each new case study.

Interview questions

Interview questions will include:

  • the role of higher education in social inclusion and social equity;
  • the various effects of basic research; contributions to industry, regions, towns and communities;
  • public contributions to cultural and intellectual life;
  • global public goods;
  • and contributions to internationalisation.

Provisional interview questions

Using an earlier version of this research design, Simon Marginson conducted case studies in Australia (48 interviews) and Russia (30 interviews) in 2013. This enabled testing of the research process and first development of the research instruments.

Derived from the earlier work, the following are possible ‘stem’ questions that could be used in the case study interviews in individual countries. In the manner of semi-structured interviews, there would be variation according to context and subject; and significant variation, including follow-up questions, on the basis of the answers to the ‘stem’ questions.

These questions may need substantial revision prior to use in some countries, particularly in relation to the use of key terms, while keeping in mind also the need for commonality across the project.

  1. What is the role of government in higher education? What should government do? Are there limits – what should government not do?
  2. What do you understand by the term ‘public good’? What benefits and activities fall under this?
  3. Does higher education produce collective goods, some say social goods, that are distinct from benefits that can be identified in relation to individuals? What are those collective goods?
  4. What does higher education contribute to the ‘public good’, in the following areas (some individual, some collective). Consider: (1) Are there public goods created here? (2) How do we know, and can we measure them? (knowledge; research, development and innovation; arts and science not vocationally specific; professional and occupational training; equitable social opportunity; creativity in different fields; social communications; building cities and regions; citizenship, tolerance and cosmopolitanism; internationalisation; arts and culture; public policy development, and better government)
  5. If higher education creates a mix of public and private goods, do you think that both kinds of good can grow together? Or is it that the more public goods are created, the less private goods are created? Is it zero-sum?
  6. If higher education was 100 per cent funded by student tuition would the public goods still flow? (Possible follow-up question – In part or whole?)
  7. Higher education is funded from a mix of public and private sources. How should the balance be determined? (Possible follow-up question – Is it essentially just political and arbitrary? Can it be grounded?)
  8. What is the global public good?
  9. The UN Development Programme defines the global public good as benefits that flow across borders and are widely shared. Do universities (in the system concerned) contribute to this global public good? How? How do we know?
  10. Governments fund research because it generates innovations in the national economy. What if the benefits are captured by foreign firms? Should government fund research without likely national economic impact? If public goods flow across borders, who should pay for them, producer country or receiver country?