Higher Education and the Public Good


The Association for the Study of Higher Education announced the theme for its 2016 conference yesterday: Higher Education and the Public Good. This is timely, as today’s Inside Higher Education reports a study that found that doubling the number of universities in a region raises its GDP by about 0.5 percent. The effect was highest for the development of research-based universities with PhD programs, in established Western economies.

For PhD candidates like me, this is reassuring, because it indicates that markets expand as the availability of graduates with advanced degrees increases — i.e. there are jobs out there! This is certainly true in the developing world, where there are increasing efforts to attract qualified faculty from all over the world, to contribute to the growth of the knowledge economy.

But public good is not limited to economic growth.  In his seminal text titled ‘Higher Learning, Greater Good: The Private and Social Benefits of Higher Education‘ Walter McMahon argues that the benefits of higher education spillover into communities and societies in many different ways. Graduates are more likely to engage in community service, to educate their children and to raise the quality of life not only for their families but also for their neighbors and communities.

In 2015, I completed a case study investigating the social benefits for a selected group of teachers from all over Pakistan. As I interviewed graduates from the deserts of Sindh, the Himalayas of Northern Pakistan, the coastal regions of Balochistan and the metropolitan city of Karachi, I heard and saw the effects of their graduate degrees. The women talked about the hard-won respect of their communities and families, who came to them for advice not only about education but also about family matters. Women from mountainous Gilgit talked about the changes they had seen in the District Education Office; ten years ago, there were no women in the office and that day, I was speaking to a group of 6 women, all of whom worked for the Education department. One participant from Balochistan noted that he had bought a computer for his daughter and had insisted his sister go back to school to pursue a graduate degree. These are a few of the many stories I heard.

These teachers were leveraging the respect they had gained in their communities to bring about positive change. They volunteered their time to teach in other schools and to run workshops on gender and education, on completing college applications and on the importance of respecting diversity.

This then, is also public good and I hope that the conversations at ASHE will focus not only on the economy but also on the other social and private benefits of higher education.


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