Chinese HE’s contribution to the global common good

Factors such as privatisation and marketisation have tended to detract from the ‘public side’ of higher education in recent years, meaning the idea of higher education as a public good has been challenged in many countries. As researchers focusing on public good(s) and higher education, we have conducted the first empirical study on this theme in China and hope this research will make some contributions to knowledge at an international level.

From a series of interviews with government officials and university academics, we found that higher education in China is not a pure public good as it is selective and fee charging. Therefore, it is reasonable to argue that higher education in China belongs to the category of quasi-public goods.

However, our research findings, along with the overwhelming bulk of literature, including policy documents and laws, highlight higher education’s contributions to the public good through, for instance, a decreased crime rate, increased social mobility and technology development as well as its non-profit nature.

So we ask: does this mean that a quasi-public good could also contribute to the public good and also generate other public goods (for example, knowledge) under governmental and social influence?

A collective endeavour

In China, the origin (public or private) of higher education is not a focus for discussion because the educational community in China is shaped, controlled and largely financed by the government and relevant national laws. However, its role and contribution to the people, society and nation are the subject of wide debate.

In this sense, apart from a widely believed sense that higher education contributes to the public good, it is culturally understood as a collective endeavour; in policy terms, it is available to all people. In this sense, defining higher education in China in terms of common good(s) may be less vague and more comprehensible.

The creation and production of common goods are processes of collective participation, implying that people who participate in them could benefit from them. These participants form a community with common interest. Considering higher education in China in relation to a common good reinforces the idea of education as the (global) common good as expressed by UNESCO (2015): education as a dynamic process which requires shared participation (a collective endeavour).

We often seen the products of higher education, for instance, state-of-the-art knowledge and advanced research outputs as being without boundary, belonging to the global community once produced.

Our research also identifies four main ways in which Chinese higher education contributes to the global common good:
  • • The first is by cultivating talent (with a global perspective) that enhances social and economic development.

  • • The second is by producing research that solves challenging global problems and improves human wellbeing.

  • • The third is by providing public services – including public engagement activities and policy suggestions.

  • • The fourth is through preserving cultural inheritance. Most importantly, higher education in China contributes significantly to social mobility, which coincides with UNESCO’s interpretation of education’s distinctive contribution to the global common good.

Generally speaking, higher education in China is beneficial for all and encourages understanding, tolerance, equity and inclusion. For instance, in the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative, there is a humanistic exchange mechanism that gives priority to the relationship between countries and regions. The main carrier of this mechanism is higher education, which aims to promote mutual understanding among young people.

This initiative can also be regarded as a global common good since participants (different countries and individuals) achieve mutual understanding and benefits.

Without doubt, this trend will continue and expand around the world, indicating a positive and constructive role for higher education because of its growing power and influence. A country needs higher education in many ways and higher education can also serve a country’s needs.


If higher education (in China and around the world) should be seen as a (global) common good, universities in different countries need to cooperate with open minds rather than focusing on their own self-interest and construct a community with a common interest, which echoes the inclusive Chinese idea of building ‘a community of shared future for mankind’(ren lei ming yun gong tong ti in Chinese) that reflects on the increasing interdependence and convergence among countries and regions throughout the world.

However, what we must recognise is that shifting from the idea of public good to common good in higher education is not only a conceptual change but a change in whom we regard as the responsible parties who determine the relationship between higher education, students, society and the state.

The wider society, students and universities themselves need to be involved in future decisions about higher education and its development. It is not the responsibility of government alone.

Lin Tian is a research associate of the Centre for Global Higher Education, UCL Institute of Education, United Kingdom, and a PhD student in the Center for World-Class Universities at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China. Nian Cai Liu is a Centre for Global Higher Education co-investigator and dean of the Graduate School of Education at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China.