Foregrounding the public good benefits of university study

Over the last few decades there has come to be a dominance of economic arguments regarding the purpose of higher education. There are two key positions in this regard, one based on human capital theory and an alternative view based on the credentialing functions of education.

Human capital theory argues that there will be a linear causal link between expansion of educational participation and economic development. Within this understanding, education is viewed as an investment which will offer economic returns both for society and for the individual. But the evidence from countries that have achieved high levels of participation in higher education does not support this theory. Expansion of education is often not accompanied by an expansion of jobs that require high levels of training.

An alternative position that retains the focus on the economy notes higher education’s credentialing role. In a labour market where lots of graduates are jostling for limited jobs, higher education credentials serve to assist employers to select graduates by signalling levels of academic performance and specifics of skills attained, and this notion often includes judgements of institutional status as signals of quality.

But the analysis of narratives from 73 young people suggests that regardless of whether higher education is understood to be an economic driver or a means of credentialing skills, putting economic advancement as the main purpose of higher education is an inadequate conception of its significance. Perhaps more useful is to foreground the public good benefits of university education – goods that move beyond the benefits accrued by the graduate.

This is not to deny that there are notable material advantages to being a graduate in South Africa – and the participants in this study were well aware of this. Given that these graduates will accrue significant financial rewards from their studies over the course of their lives, there is a strong case to be made for them bearing some of the costs.

While concerns are periodically raised about graduate unemployment in South Africa, the statistics continue to show that the employment prospects for university graduates are mostly very good. All the same, patterns of graduate employment are racially skewed, with race remaining the most significant predictor of employment outcomes, even beyond institution and field of study.

Intrinsic reasons for study

Notably, all the graduates in this study who were not in full-time postgraduate studies found work. There was limited evidence of graduates who chose to continue postgraduate studies due to difficulty experienced or anticipated in finding work; some felt that postgraduate studies would enhance their employment prospects, but most offered intrinsic reasons for furthering their studies.

The evidence of ‘frictional unemployment’, where graduates take a few months to find their first job, was exacerbated significantly by location, with graduates who go back home to locations far from the urban metropolises struggling much more to get into the workplace. Having access to urban networks through family, community and university played an important role in getting work.

For those who were limited to applying from a distance to positions through the internet, difficulties were more apparent. These findings provide strong confirmation of Sen’s theory of conversion factors, where having a degree is not enough: one needs the environmental and social location to help you convert this into capabilities.

Contrary to popular perception, we found that bachelor of arts (BA) graduates appeared to have similar work prospects to their bachelor of science (BSc) peers. Nearly all were in what can be termed graduate-level jobs in that they required graduate-level skills, and BA and BSc students seemed to have similar levels of difficulty in getting the first job.

The only difference noted was that BSc graduates tended to be in work more directly related to their major subjects, perhaps unsurprising given that many BA majors, such as sociology or philosophy, are not tied to a particular workplace.

Many graduates in this study found that they had to take an internship position as an entry into employment. These were often poorly paid, and while these did seem to lead to better long-term positions, at least in the cases of these study participants, we have to raise questions about the fairness of this system, which is becoming ubiquitous around the world.

Internships provide industry with a financially cheap mechanism for undertaking a very extended job interview and workplace training, but it comes at a cost to the graduate, many of whom do not have family finances to support them in this period.

Beyond private good

Across the data, we saw that university attendance provides enormous personal benefits and acts as a very valuable private good, ensuring far better employment and earning possibilities. This is however not the full story on the purposes of higher education. The data consistently demonstrated that higher education is far more than a private good enhancing the life chances of the individual graduate and his or her family; it is also a public good that benefits society as a whole.

There is a lively contemporary literature that seeks to reconceptualise the meaning of the public good purposes of higher education in present times. There are strong arguments for the role university graduates and the university as an institution can play in nurturing human flourishing, strengthening democracy, and learning how to live together amidst differences.

There is also reference to the role the university can play in safeguarding the rights of individuals while reversing the environmental degradation forged through current economic systems. Amidst deliberations about globalisation and internationalisation to feed the market, we are urged to consider the democratic alternative of a conversation around social justice, which gains increasing urgency as environmental constraints are felt globally.

We were particularly interested to note reflections on higher education by our participants that drew on such conceptions of themselves and their futures. Public higher education is funded significantly by the public purse and by a citizenry who mostly will not get to university.

While almost all our graduates were gainfully employed or studying further, it was notable that in describing their present situation they didn’t only talk about the material rewards of employment. They spoke about the need for intrinsic job satisfaction and they were thinking more widely about their role in society.

The broad intrinsic benefits of having citizens who lead a flourishing life with a love of intellectual endeavours was evident in our analysis. Many participants said they valued the exposure to the varied fields of knowledge at university – to ideas they had not known, and would have been unlikely to get to know if they hadn’t studied. They spoke about how this made them want to learn more; they had an even deeper sense of how much was ‘out there’. Some students spoke of the intrinsic satisfaction of mastering a difficult area of knowledge.

Some spoke of the wonders of getting lost in an intellectual challenge. The comparisons were acute when participants compared their lives to those of their peers who hadn’t attended university. Many of the young people in this study were articulate about the differences in their life situation to that of their peers, many of whom had limited options and aspirations and were unemployed.

Contrary to a dominant discourse that sees higher education in fairly instrumental terms, this study shows that many graduates from higher education have intrinsic and passionate motivations for academic endeavours, and this is something they take with them after completing their studies.

Besides the intrinsic value of higher education, students also spoke about higher education fostering capacities that led to personal development. These included becoming more independent and developing resilience. For many, personal growth was linked to their moving away from home and becoming more independent and responsible. For all of them going to university was a transition from a relatively small institution to a much larger one. Some, mostly women, commented on how they felt they had become more confident in this process.

Entering the 'knowledge economy'

But university was more than just a self-improvement camp. Participants were able to articulate the specific knowledge and ways of thinking they had developed while at university, and how these skills put them in a strong position to enter what is now termed the ‘knowledge economy’. Importantly, these were not simply instrumentalist technical ‘skills’ but ways of thinking – which means the impact goes beyond the individual.

Many students spoke in some detail about the kind of creative and analytical thinking learnt at university: not taking things at face value; being able to interrogate different ways of conceptualising a phenomenon; and how to build up or test a logical argument.

A significant challenge in the post ‘rainbow nation’ period is that of living together in plurality, with respect for other people and other views. As a country forged in colonialism and apartheid, we still have a long way to go in tackling racism and prejudice. This study offers strong evidence for the argument that learning alongside a diverse class community fosters critically progressive views.

We noted in our analysis that for some students this development also involved rejecting stereotypes that might have been imposed on them by society at large. They noted that in the context of pervasive racism in broader society, it was at university that they had been able to abandon a sense of inferiority that had hobbled them before. These were students who expressed keen awareness of the prevalence of racism in society, but, maybe surprisingly, mostly did not characterise their university experiences in this way.

In terms of people who can act with confidence and compassion in a pluralistic society, our study suggests that universities are producing graduates with strong capabilities in this regard. There was also evidence of the development of a social consciousness and nascent activism.

Many participants expressed dissatisfaction with inequality in society and articulated the need for shifts in structural constraints. Graduates with these dispositions, termed by Melanie Walker and colleagues as ‘public good professionals’, are going to be crucial in addressing the radical inequities in South African society.

In reflecting on the public good aspects of the university, then, we can ask, ‘What kind of young people have we formed in our university graduates?’ They are of course individuals with varied stories and trajectories, each making their own way in the world.

But overall, they are thoughtful and independent young people who are establishing themselves in their careers with commitment and responsibility. They are mostly socially progressive and are critically engaged with key public debates and they are keenly aware of the privilege they have had of accessing higher education.

This is an edited extract from Going to University: The influence of higher education on the lives of young South Africans (2018) Case, J, Marshall, D, McKenna, S and Mogashana, D. African Minds. Available for download at this link.

Professor Jenni Case is Head of Department of Engineering Education at Virginia Tech, Professor Delia Marshall works in the Faculty of Natural Science at the University of the Western Cape, Professor Sioux McKenna is Director of Postgraduate Studies and PhD Coordinator of Higher Education Studies at Rhodes University, and Dr Disaapele Mogashana is a student success coach and consultant at True Success Institute.