The Case for Public Universities
Published on: Nov 14, 2006

Peter Scott is Vice-Chancellor of Kingston University in London and formerly Professor of Education at the University of Leeds and Editor of ‘The Times Higher Education Supplement’.

Public universities, to borrow the campaign phrase of a former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, ‘have never had it so good’. In the first decade of the 21st century they remain the heartland of nearly every modern higher education system, as surely as they were in the 1960s. But public universities may also never have been more beset by doubts about their identity and ethos. Like many public institutions they have suffered from the attenuation of the ‘public’, as a domain and an idea. And, to a greater extent perhaps than some other public institutions, public universities have espoused (voluntarily or under duress) policies more usually associated with the market – higher tuition fees, the commercialisation of research and for-profit internationalisation. As a result the once clear distinction between public and private universities has been clouded.

On the one hand, despite two or more decades of anti-welfare state rhetoric and neo-liberal economic (and social?) policies the balance between public and private institutions has remained largely unchanged. In the United States the great majority of students attend public institutions and it is the great land-grant universities (all public with the dubious exception of Cornell) which continue to be the engine-room of the nation’s research (even if Harvard, Stanford and the other élite private universities provide some of its flashier superstructure). In Europe public universities are entirely dominant. In Britain all universities are public institutions bar the small and struggling University of Buckingham (less visible now that it no longer enjoys Margaret Thatcher’s domineering patronage). In Germany the establishment of a new private university in Bremen is remarkable – not as a trend but as an aberration. Even in central and eastern Europe (and especially Poland and Hungary) where many private institutions have been established since the fall of the Berlin Wall, most are business schools or, in effect, trade schools for the ICT industry which enjoy limited prestige. Only in the emerging higher education ‘great powers’ of the new century, China and India, is the dominant place of public universities more problematical – unchallenged in China but increasingly contested in India. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the future of higher education is bound up in the future of public universities.

On the other hand, public universities have been transformed. The most obvious transformation is the trend in the United States from no or low-tuition for in-state students to tuition fees that sometimes only appear moderate in contrast to the very high fees now charged by the most prestigious private universities, and in Europe from ‘free’ higher education to regimes in which students are expected to make an increasingly significant contribution to the cost of their higher education. In Britain, for example, students now have to pay fees of £3,000 (more than $4,000) a year – although, as evidence of the resilience of a welfare-state ethos, the Government had to agree to provide interest-free loans to pay these higher fees. Justified on economic grounds this tuition shift also represents a powerful statement about the purposes of higher education, an often unacknowledged drift from viewing access to higher education as a democratic entitlement, or a process of individual emancipation, towards a new view of participation in higher education as an investment (either by the individual student who expects a proper rate-of-return in terms of future earnings, or by a nation keen to retain its cutting edge in an increasingly competitive and knowledge-based global economy).

A similar trend can be observed in research. Public universities are no longer simply encouraged to generate research funding from the corporate and philanthropic sectors (hardly a new phenomenon, although the pressure to do so has increased as public research funding has been squeezed); they are now encouraged to regard the research they produce not only a public good but also as intellectual property to be traded in the market-place. As a result there has been a drift from ‘pure’ to ‘applied’ research, although changes in the nature of knowledge production have clouded this distinction. The shift towards the full economic costing of research projects even (or especially) in public universities may also have compromised the idea of research as a public good.

In addition important changes have taken place in the governance of public universities. Even in the traditional European social democracies such as Sweden and Austria universities have been detached from state bureaucracies – more, it must be said, to enhance their entrepreneurial responsiveness and managerial effectiveness than to strengthen academic freedom. Public universities have also been active arenas for the application of so-called ‘new public management’. What the British sociologist A H Halsey once called ‘donnish dominion’, collusively sustained by high levels of (often arm’s-length) public funding, has crumbled in most public universities and been replaced by professional management structures. In Britain all these processes – higher tuition fees, nearer-market research and professional management – would be summed up in a single word oft/over-used by Tony Blair, ‘modernisation’.


The Transformation of the State

However, it is important to see these changes to public universities in a wider context. The situation of private universities too has been transformed, not least by the advance of the so-called regulatory state. The influence of the 21st century state is most powerfully expressed in terms of regulation – whether requirements to respect new employment or health and safety legislation, new audit and accountability burdens, codes of corporate responsibility or prohibitions on particular forms of research (for example, in the United States, stem cells). In most cases these regulations apply to both public and private institutions. It could even be said that, just as public universities have been to some degree ‘privatised’, so private universities have been to a similar degree ‘nationalised’. Both must operate in a pervasive (and intrusive?) audit society.

The 21st century state has also been described as a market state which no longer sees its responsibilities through the lens of the 20th century welfare state as the promoter of social well-being but rather as an agent of economic advance, in (junior?) partnership with the private sector, and as a purchaser of public services on behalf of  tax-payers. As a result public universities are now seen as one, potentially among several, alternative providers. Their fiduciary, and therefore privileged, link with government has been broken. As a (further) result the differences between public and private universities have been reduced. Both access hybrid funding from public and private sources (and not always in dissimilar proportions); both are governed by professional managers (with the broader ‘public interest’ sometimes as well represented in private universities as in public universities); and both directed by an increasingly instrumental, and investment-oriented, ethos.

The challenge facing public universities, therefore, is to redefine, and reassert, the meaning of public-ness in the context not only of modern higher education systems but also of the state and social forms characteristic of the new century. There are three possible dimensions of public-ness: (i) public-ness as expressed through (predominantly) public funding and public forms of governance; (ii) public-ness in the form of expression of the public interest – at institutional or system level; and (iii) public-ness as expressed through a public ethic or social values.


Public Funding and Governance

Once the most powerful expression of public-ness in higher education were public funding and governance; today the first at least, funding, is less decisive. In the United States some state universities hanker after describing themselves as state-supported, partly on the purely pragmatic grounds that State governments provide them with a dwindling proportion of their funding but also partly on more principled, even ideological, grounds because they now have many more stake-holders apart from State governments (not least students who pay higher tuition). In Britain where universities have always been independent corporations, i.e. public but not state institutions, a similar tendency can be observed. A declining share of their income comes through the Higher Education Funding Councils, the agencies established to channel core public funding to institutions. Serious questions have even been raised about whether it is any longer accurate to categorise universities as part of the ‘public sector’. In the rest of Europe this process of (apparent) disengagement from the State is less advanced, although the direction of travel is clear.

However, some caution needs to be exercised here. Although many public universities are less dependent on state funding in a narrow sense, i.e. direct State appropriations in the United States or block grant funding in the case of Britain, it does not follow they are less dependent on public funding in a wider sense, i.e. all forms of public support including loans and grants to students, tax off-sets, research funding and the like. It may be that what appears to be dwindling of state funding for public universities is in fact simply be the result of the diversification of public expenditure (because the state, through its multiple agencies, now makes many ‘contracts’ with public universities) and the larger phenomenon of the hydridisation of public and private funding in an age of privatisation.

This conclusion may be strengthened by what is happening to the governance of public universities – or, rather, what is not happening. There is little evidence here of the state’s retreat. In the United States the degree of political determination of boards of regents of state universities and of system-wide coordinating councils has not been significantly reduced. In Britain, although universities have independent governing bodies (usually with very limited directly political representation), successive Governments have placed increasing emphasis on enhanced governance as an agent of modernisation – for example, by encouraging lay members to be more assertive in the face of university managers and developing codes-of-conduct and good-practice guides to ensure that Governing Bodies work more effectively (and purposively). These efforts can plausibly be seen as an (indirect) attempt to strengthen the external, and therefore public, supervision of British universities.

At first sight the dwindling of public funding and the continued assertion of public governance may seem a paradox. But it is readily comprehensible in the light of the shift from a welfare state to a market or regulatory state. The result is that the public-ness of public universities is expressed less through direct public funding (although, for the reasons already given, public funding remains substantial and even dominant, if more fragmented) and more through supervision and regulation.


Public Interest

The second potential dimension of public-ness is that public universities embody the wider public interest more concretely than other institutions. Certainly in historical terms this role was clear. The state first became involved in (funding and/or providing) higher education partly to make good a quantitative deficit – the private sector, whether fee-paying individuals, business interventions or philanthropic support, was unable to provide enough higher education to meet the needs of a rapidly developing industrial, urban, secular and expert society; but partly to bring about qualitative change – for example, to develop more accessible and relevant forms of higher education. But is this still true today? Even if it is true, can these needs be met, and the wider public interest safeguarded, through more sophisticated, and better resourced, markets and a combination of state action and private enterprise in mutual support? In short does the state have an exclusive right to define the public interest – and, in the particular case of higher education, does it need to run its own, i.e. public, universities to ensure that the public interest is safeguarded?

The first of these questions is beyond the scope of the current discussion. The tradition of a centralised Jacobin state remains strong in parts of Europe – and, in a revised entrepreneurial-authoritarian form, in some parts of Asia. In other nations, notably the United States, federal arrangements compromised the solidity of state power from the start. And everywhere the role of ‘civil society’ is acknowledged as contributing to defining the public interest, whether in partnership or opposition to formal governmental structures. However, the second question demands an answer. In England there has been a lively debate about how best to secure the wider public interest in higher education, which has been distinguished to some extent from the immediate political agenda. Once the answer would have been that this was best left to the autonomous action of individual universities which were overwhelmingly funded by the state and therefore ‘public universities’, not so much to deliver specific policy outcomes but in order to maintain their capacity for autonomous action.

Today, largely because English universities have become more entrepreneurial (competing for students, research funding and other ‘market’ opportunities), it is more difficult to believe that their collective but uncoordinated actions can constitute the public interest; what makes sense for individual universities does not necessarily make sense for the system as a whole – or for the nation. But, if (still notionally public) universities are less able, or less trusted to, maintain the public interest, how is this to be done? The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) is quietly promoting its own claim – partly because the introduction of higher tuition fees has reduced its role in the (direct) funding of universities. The argument is that HEFCE – in close partnership, of course, with the Department of Education and Skills (the relevant Government department) – can use its remaining funding, and limited regulatory powers, to counter-balance any unintended consequences of the emerging quasi-market among universities. This debate in England is far from being unique because the drift towards the market / regulatory state is a pervasive phenomenon. It is significant isn that public universities themselves are no longer necessarily seen as the most appropriate guardians of the public interest in higher education – at any rate, in a hard policy sense.


Public Ethic and Social Values

The third dimension of public-ness is that, even if public universities can no longer be relied on to represent the public interest in this hard policy sense, they continue to embody softer public, or community, values (representing perhaps civil society). For example the so-called ‘social dimension’ of European higher education is frequently invoked – especially in debates about the advantages, and disadvantages, of extending the World Trade Organisation’s General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) to cover higher education (to which, incidentally, US, Canadian and European university organisations remain essentially opposed). Of course, this social dimension remains poorly defined – in part an assertion of the national obligations of public universities; in part nostalgia for the post-war welfare state; in part a handy defence against the depredations of the market. But it remains a powerful idea – on both sides of the Atlantic even if the phrase itself is sometimes used to oppose American and European models of higher education.

The social dimension, to the extent that it reflects a bulwark against the market, is linked to wider intellectual agendas – for example, a continuing emphasis on general education (or, in Europe, liberal education or bildung) which embodies an idealistic and transformative approach to learning; or the belief that universities should be bases for critical enquiry that dispute prevailing thought patterns and power structures. The difficulty here is that it is not clear that, even if these roles are still seen as legitimate in modern social-embedded higher education systems, public universities are better able to discharge them than private institutions. In one (historical?) sense the answer may be no. The land-grant universities in the United States and the contemporary civic universities of Victorian Britain were established with utilitarian purposes in mind. Most public universities today are still deeply woven into the fabric of their societies, sharing in their aspirations (which may be largely economic and materialist) and reflecting their social and cultural inequalities (the ivory-tower option is not generally available to them). But in another sense the answer may be yes. Public universities, by virtual of their political connection, feel the democratic pulse of their societies more directly than private institutions – as has been demonstrated in their greater contribution to equal opportunities in terms of gender and ethnic (and even social class).


The Case for Public Universities

The case for ‘public universities’ is stronger than ever – even if, some argue, the need to maintain publicly funded and governed universities has become less strong. We need ‘public universities’ more because the emergence of a knowledge society and the wider social distribution of knowledge production (or research) mean that the ability of individuals to realise their potential and contribute to (and participate in) their communities crucially depends on their access to higher education. Participation in higher education is now a fundamental civic right and a democratic entitlement – and at all levels from the community college to the research university. So universities must be fully open to the public – which requires the removal of financial, social, cultural and academic barriers to access. In the first decade of the 21st century the university is more than ever a social institution. This is no longer simply a question of equity or social justice; it is also a question of economic effectiveness.


However, it does not necessarily follow that only publicly-funded and governed universities can be social institutions. The role of public universities has been reshaped by the emergence of the market state, just as the role of private institutions has been reshaped by the development of audit culture. The result has been to confuse these roles. The earlier discussion of three possible dimensions of public-ness tends to suggest that, certainly in the first two dimensions, the distinct contribution of public universities has tended to be eroded – or, at any rate, to become much fuzzier. And yet… To conclude that publicly funded and governed universities have had their (ultimate) day seems both premature, in terms of their historical record and present contribution, and also wrong, in terms of both social and intellectual values. To maintain the public-ness of higher education without public universities, let alone without public universities being (as they still are) the heartland of higher education, seems deeply implausible – unless this is just the fond prejudice, and hope, of an unreconstructed social democrat.