New ways to make the case for the public good of HE

Today, as the debate about widening participation, employment and graduate attributes and the importance of higher education and research intensifies in many countries, the public is asking whether its interests are being served. Those interests inevitably vary depending upon who is asked – students, parents, employers, the media, politicians, etc.

Reports from both the United States and the United Kingdom argue that the public views higher education as too self-serving, rather than being concerned with providing students with a quality education or issues beyond the campus. Similarly, Ireland has witnessed a war-of-words about the quality of its graduates.

While there is a consistent view that a college education is important and highly valued, 83% of European students "(strongly agreed or rather) agreed that independent reports on the quality of universities and programmes would help students to decide where to study", and an equally high proportion would like to be involved in quality reports and rankings.

Despite popular endorsement of higher education, it is not a popular political sell against competing demands from elsewhere in society, for example, early schooling through to secondary schools, health and social services.

The recent Brexit vote in the UK and the US presidential election pick up on the uncertainty of higher education’s impact and relevance, the role of experts as elites, and the extent to which single-minded pursuit of global reputation has generated schisms between local, regional, national and global responsibilities.

Self vs social accountability

In recent years, the concept of public interest – or public good – has played a significant role in shaping what the university and the academy do, but also how they position themselves in response to this growing uncertainty and demands for greater accountability.

While these calls affect all public organisations, there are specific issues for higher education regarding concerns about access and participation; costs, affordability and debt; employability and graduate attributes; and relevance, and social and economic impact and benefit.

Traditionally, defining and asserting the value and quality of higher education has been a function of the academy itself. There has been a strong history of civic and land-grant universities prompted and supported by the state, not just in the UK and US but elsewhere.

However, there is an underlying assumption that because (public) universities represent the public good, their actions and outcomes ipso facto are in the public interest.

Today, that supposition is coming under pressure. The pendulum is moving from academic self-accountability towards stronger and broader ways of asserting social and public accountability. So, what is the public good, and who or what defines it?

Recent years have seen many governments adopt the format of a national strategy or development plan for higher education as a means of setting out national objectives – or arguably shaping the ‘public good’.

Some governments (for example, Ireland, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, Finland, Ontario and New Zealand) are adopting the policy tool of performance agreements or institutional compacts to better align higher education institutions with national objectives. In some instances, specific targets have been set. This involves identifying appropriate performance indicators and management.

While there are historic differences between centralist and devolved governance systems, these processes are in effect an attempt by governments to set out, as unambiguously as is politically possible, the responsibilities of higher education institutions to society, such as responding to labour market needs.

The process by which national objectives are determined varies, but can involve a group comprising national and international ‘experts’, sometimes using consultation mechanisms (open or limited).

Different governments describe their efforts as creating the appropriate ‘architecture’ for steering the system, governing the system, and holding the system to account, according to the governmental programme and common goals. Historical, social, cultural and economic contexts play a big role in framing the context.

For example, under the 'Nordic model’, higher education was perceived as a public good, and the state was seen as a protector of these values. However, in recent years that social contract is being renegotiated and the idea of universities being a public good is no longer taken on trust. This has led to the emergence of a more technocratic, centrally controlled relationship based on performance-type assessment processes.

While some countries tie money to the process, not all do – albeit that is likely to follow. The strategic dialogue process and performance agreements are viewed as important means to reconstruct trust as well as to meet the requirements of the public accountability agenda in a way that acknowledges, supports and balances autonomy with national objectives.

Some higher education system leaders suggest that there should be a mutual obligation to engage with their local communities to advance the public good agenda, meaning they should seek to engage with other institutions but also with the various publics, the latter being a mechanism for including the diversity of opinion and effectively circumnavigating difficulties which have traditionally beset ‘town’ and ‘gown’ relations.

The new accountability mechanisms vary across a spectrum from (de/re)regulation to public accountability, with the latter involving aspects of information provision, capacity building and performance funding.

Analyses often posit a one-dimensional conceptualisation of neoliberalism or new public management, describing governance in terms of the adoption of private corporate mechanisms to public sector organisations and not just higher education. It is operationalised in terms of control and power and often refers to matters of resource allocation.

New forms of public engagement

In this context, understandably, there is resistance – a worry that what is unique about the academy is being imperilled. A contrary view suggests that reconfiguring the public good as a set of negotiations enables opportunities for higher education to both defend and expand its sectoral and institutional demands.

The process of performance agreements or compacts shows that different goals need not be mutually exclusive, and being responsive to society can give the academy’s own goals legitimacy in a wider sense.

Similarly, the greater importance of transparency in politics, and the role of technology and the internet in facilitating public interest and involvement, suggests that further change is likely.

Consideration of the relevance to higher education provides dialogue in ways that enable the public to be involved directly in defining and participating in decisions relating to the public good, rather than having the decisions made for them.

Previously, the relationship between the university and the public had been one-way ‘engagement’, communicating the university’s work to the public (which conveniently also served as a form of positive public relations for higher education). This was an essentially one-way vector in the ‘public communication of science’, in which the universities tried to get the public to ‘understand’ the university and its work. The limitations of this approach saw a move towards understanding of science for the public.

Arguably, we are entering a new phase with new platforms and crowdsourcing, with understanding of science by the public. Indeed, as elevated an institution as NASA now canvasses the public for ideas of small scientific payloads that could be brought to the moon.

New technologies make the participation of citizens in deliberative processes easier than ever, and the academy has an opportunity now to deepen the public’s engagement with education and research and to redefine the public good through open discussion with the public.

There is no doubt that this ‘brave new world’ will be problematic; there are considerable gaps in understanding. But it may be the only way forward if higher education wants to avoid creeping interventionism.

Professor Ellen Hazelkorn and Andrew Gibson from Dublin Institute of Technology in Ireland are researchers at the Centre for Global Higher Education or CGHE, based at the UCL Institute of Education in the UK. This is an abridged edited version of a new CGHE working paper, Public Goods and Public Policy: What is public good, and who and what decides?, published on 2 May.