Project 1.1

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

The aim of this project was to build a comprehensive and internationally generic method for monitoring, measuring and judging the public benefits of universities, using empirical research in six countries.

About this project

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 took a comparative approach, using contrasting case studies from six countries. It started with a conceptual framework that reconciled 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 intended 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.

Project methods

Each case study encompassed

  • 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).

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

The notions of ‘public’ used in the project changed in the light of the encounter with other major traditions such as the Nordic and the East Asian. Each time the working hypothesis changed it became 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 was a settled form of that hypothesis that no longer required continued adjustment in the light of each new case study.

Interview questions

Interview questions included:

  • 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 questions were used in the case study interviews in individual countries. In the manner of semi-structured interviews, there was variation according to context and subject; and significant variation, including follow-up questions, on the basis of the answers to the ‘stem’ questions.

  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?

Case studies

Case studies in this project included the UK, USA, France, Finland, China and Japan. Previously collected data, in a prior and similar project, include Australia and Russia.

  • USA and UK – two from the Anglo-American group, where higher education is understood in terms of the limited liberal state and positioned between civil society and state.
  • China and Japan – two contrasting countries in the Chinese civilizational tradition, where the state is understood as comprehensive and higher education is positioned in the state.
  • Finland – a Nordic country, where higher education is positioned in a different comprehensive state tradition.
  • France – a country that reflects the Western European tradition.


Doctoral research project

Similarities and differences between notions of ‘public’ in the Sinic and Anglo-American traditions, and the implications for higher education

The doctoral research project was a sub-project of the main inquiry and is being undertaken by Lili Yang.

Project aim

The project identified and explored the similarities and differences between Anglo-American and Chinese (Sinic) civilizational traditions, in understandings and practices of ‘public’ and ‘social’ in higher education.


The Sinic tradition understands the state in comprehensive terms, supreme in relation to markets and civil society. Sinic assumptions continue to shape political cultures, society and higher education practices across East Asia and Singapore, though higher education systems in East Asia have also been strongly affected by the encounter with Western modernisation.

By contrast, the Anglo-American tradition understands the state as being limited. This follows from the tradition of John Locke and Adam Smith. The Anglo-American model is currently the leading international influence on worldwide higher education. Its influence is strengthened by the normative effects of global university rankings.

In the Anglo-American world the independence of the university from state direction is integral to its capacity to create public goods, but the locus of definition of ‘public’ is accordingly unclear. If ‘public’ does not mean the state, where does it lie?

In the Sinic world, the autonomous personality of the university is mostly expressed on behalf of the state – universities are not separated form the state – and in relation to the core responsibilities of the state for prosperity and social order.

Academic freedom is understood in terms of authority and responsibility, perhaps more than in terms of negative freedom (the dominant notion of academic freedom in the limited liberal state tradition), though freedom of teaching and research from coercion by external authority is valued in all higher education traditions.

In a monograph of case studies on contemporary Chinese universities, Ruth Hayhoe (2011) notes the presence of ‘a strong tradition of “intellectual freedom” in China’, with foundations distinct from those of European rationalism. This Chinese tradition requires that knowledge be demonstrated first and foremost through action for the ‘public good’, and that knowledge is ‘holistic and inter-connected’, not organised in ‘narrowly defined separate disciplines’.

It must be said that neither tradition is always true to these essential ideas, and the breach of those ideas can be as informative as the ideas themselves.

Project methods

The doctoral research project entailed a review of scholarly and policy-related works in each tradition, including research of higher education practice and system organisation, supported by a small number of in-depth interviews with scholars in the English-speaking and Sinic worlds.

The key question for the study was to identify and explore the similarities and differences between the two traditions (including the potentials for synergy), conceptually and as practised in contemporary higher education.

The project  examined similarities and differences in relation to:

  • systemic policy and objectives,
  • university-government relations,
  • institutional and academic governance,
  • the conduct of teaching and research within universities,
  • the nature of collegial relations in the various disciplines, and
  • the ethical requirements of scholarly conduct.

The project ran from January 2017 until September 2020.


Professor Simon Marginson
University of Oxford
Simon Marginson is Professor of Higher Education at the University of Oxford, founding Director of the ESRC/RE Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE), Joint Editor-in-Chief of Higher Education, and a Professorial Associate with the University of Melbourne. Simon’s research is focused primarily on global and international higher education, the global science system, higher education in East Asia, the contributions of higher education, and higher education and social inequality. Simon led CGHE’s project 8 which investigated the public good role of higher education in ten countries. The project found that while a broad notion of public good has been largely emptied out of policy in the English-speaking countries, where economic definitions of individualised pecuniary value are dominant, recognition of the broader individual and collective outcomes of higher education continues in different ways in other jurisdictions including France, Finland, South Korea and China. The study in England discovered however that despite the narrow economic framing used by Westminster policy makers, both higher education practitioners and policy professionals believe that higher education makes a large and multiple contribution to both national and global public goods.
IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society
Vincent Carpentier is a Reader in History of Education at IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society. He was responsible for CGHE Project 7, ‘A historical lens on higher education staffing: UK and France’. Key outcomes from this project included papers such as Three Stories of Institutional Differentiation: Resource, Mission and Social Inequalities in Higher Education (Policy Reviews in Higher Education 2021) and Academic Workforce in France and the UK in Historical Perspectives (Comparative Education 2023- with Emmanuelle Picard), recently reported in the Conversation (2023) . He was also a Co-Investigator on Project 8, ‘Local and global public good of higher education: 10 nation study’ examining the French context presented in the paper Public Good in French Universities: Principles and practices of the “Republican” Model of Higher education (Compare 2022- with Aline Courtois).
Professor Futao Huang
Hiroshima University (Japan)
Futao Huang is a Co-Investigator on CGHE Project 8, ‘Local and global public good of higher education: 10 nation study’.
Professor Nian Cai Liu
Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China
Nian Cai Liu is a Co-Investigator on CGHE Project 8, ‘Local and global public good of higher education: 10 nation study’.
Kiyomi Horiuchi
Hiroshima University
Kiyomi Horiuchi is a Research Associate on CGHE Project 8, ‘Local and global public good of higher education: 10 nation study’.
Lili Yang
University of Hong Kong
Lili Yang is an assistant professor at Faculty of Education, the University of Hong Kong. Previously, she was a PhD researcher and then a postdoctoral researcher at CGHE. Her research interests include higher education, cross-cultural comparison of higher education, and higher education policy. Her forthcoming book is titled ‘Higher Education, State and Society: Comparing the Chinese and Anglo-American Approaches’ (Bloomsbury).
Lin Tian
Hunan University, China
Lin Tian is a Research Associate on CGHE Project 8, ‘Local and global public good of higher education: 10 nation study’.


CGHE working papers

Additional publications

Translation of work published in English

  • Marginson, S. (2016). To, co publiczne i prywatnew szkolnictwie wyższym. Synteza podejścia ekonomicznego i politycznego. Nauka i Szkolnictwo Wyższe, 48 (2), pp. 17-42 (2016). [Translation of ‘Private/public in higher education: A synthesis of economic and political approaches’, Studies in Higher Education.] In Polish. Translated by Krystian Szadkowski. Published online here.

Other outputs