Evidencing higher education for the common good

As Jane Austen might have said if she was working in higher education in the 21st century, it is a truth universally agreed that large research universities must be in want of global, national and local agendas that can be pursued at one and the same time.

This three-way vision has driven university managers for two decades. Universities have vigorously built global activity and reputation while promising anyone who asked that their gut commitment to their locality was undiminished.

Internationalisation has been presented as a universal good, as if to create a cross-border, cross-cultural or global connection is to automatically trigger a flow of all-round benefits, regardless of the content of the activity. This approach can be summed up as: ‘internationalisation – too much is not enough!’

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It has never been wholly convincing. Local and international agendas do not always sit easily next to each other. International students do bring vibrancy to localities, but not everybody meets those students or wants to start on the complexities of the cross-cultural journey. The trickle down from global research conferences to rural families, or to the retired folk in small towns who vote for Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen or Nigel Farage, is not all that obvious.

The claim is made often enough about benefits to the common good of communities, but aside from the direct benefits of international students to the local retail, housing and entertainment industries, the claim has mostly been couched in very general terms. Organic local engagement and plausible evidence are both really important.

The strategic setting has now changed. The surge in nativist political populism across much of the world, from North America to Europe to India, has brought all forms of cross-border engagement and mobility into question. The pushback long felt by flagship universities in the American public sector – giving places to foreign students means taking them from local families with a right to upward social mobility – has now spread elsewhere.

Worse, some populist politicians sense that they can use foreigners in universities as a scapegoat, in the manner that Jews were long used in Europe and Muslims and refugees are today. Even cosmopolitan Denmark and the Netherlands are no longer so convinced about the benefits of student mobility.

Likewise, simply asserting that large and expensive cross-border research programmes are a public good is an argument that could run out of gas. Something more specific is needed.


In the United Kingdom the 2016 Brexit referendum unleashed these global-local tensions in higher education. Remain-supporting universities in the North, the Midlands and Wales found themselves surrounded like islands in a rising tide of Leave-voting local communities with little cross-border connectedness.

Some universities, such as the University of Lincoln, are now developing robust programmes for local engagement which will serve as examples of good practice for the sector as a whole. The University of Nottingham, with its deeply grounded international agenda and strong role as a premier public institution in the city, places particular emphasis on practical connections between its local and international agendas.

The need for metrics

Here there is also an important role for social science research on higher education. At the Centre for Global Higher Education, we are investigating the contributions of higher education to public goods and common goods for the population as a whole in 10 countries. The research is still in progress, but we have drawn two conclusions so far.

The first conclusion is that the UNESCO notion of education as a global common good, and the provider of common goods (plural), is more useful than the notions of public good and public goods.

Public goods are ambiguous, pulled between the technical economic idea of non-market production and the political idea of state sector production. Non-government organisations contribute to common benefits, alongside governments. Further, to say something is ‘public’ tells us nothing about its content.

UNESCO’s common goods are goods of community, solidarity, tolerance, equality, capability and human rights – goods that build positive relations between people, such as equality of opportunity in higher education.

Second, the next step in the research, one that is essential to rendering it useful in policy, is solid metrics expressing the contribution of higher education to common good – metrics that work within countries and can be used for the kind of cross-country comparisons that help to focus strategies for better performance.

For example, these might include:

  • Research collaboration: Data on internationally co-authored science papers are readily available from Scopus and Clarivate Analytics, but this does not conclusively prove the point about the contribution to the common good. We need measures of research work on common global problems, such as climate change and ecological sustainability, urban development, food and water and epidemiology.

  • Social opportunity and individual capability: Higher education builds capability in human relations, as the OECD Adult Skills Survey shows, and in a global world educating people in each country benefits all other countries. This proposition needs to be grounded in evidence that growing participation, gender equality and social mobility leads to more international connectedness and tolerant global relations.

  • Flow-ons from student mobility: Mobility opens up larger opportunities for personal freedom and cross-cultural learning, but what we know little about are the relational effects in both the country of student origin and the country of education. Studies of returning international graduates are a growth area, but need to move beyond small-scale interview samples to modelling the aggregated social effects. In the country of education, standardised surveys can track the impact of international student populations on coping with diversity, tolerance and local-global cooperation.

Simon Marginson is professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom, and director of the ESRC/OFSRE Centre for Global Higher Education.