1. On average, when an individual is educated, value is created for the wider society in terms of more knowledge creation, more and better quality goods are produced and there is a higher level of citizenry. Herein lies a question; should the individual pay for their own educational development because they will be the most immediate and direct beneficiary, or should society absorb (through taxes) this fiscal burden because overall the more that the citizenry are educated, the higher the level of the society will be for all?
Fuller (2005) points to two related but separate meanings of the term ‘public good’. Physical products or services created for the use of the public are ‘goods’ in the sense of being a ‘thing’. Concurrently, they are also ‘good’ for the public in a value-laded sense. Fuller (2005) contends, however, that the “value of knowledge is not diminished by increasing the numbers of knowers” (p. 30), a view which fails to recognise the increasing diminishing returns of the economic value of knowledge when more people have access to that knowledge. In other words, the ‘good’ to the public reduces when knowledge is shared. If everyone had access to knowledge, there could be no specific economic gain to be made from knowledge. This is a paradox, for at the same time, the entire society gains from increased shared knowledge, yet simultaneously, full access to knowledge reduces the potential for economic gain. Historically, the paradox can be partially explained through notions of the elite and the limitation to access. The high social capital held by the elite allowed them both access to knowledge and the ability to create economic wealth. This is, of course, fundamentally undemocratic, a position increasingly challenged by the rise of massification in education.
2. Economics is the study of scarcity and the choices that result as a consequence of that scarcity. When education was in the province of the elite, no such scarcity was perceived, and education was not subject to economic considerations. With massification there is the illusion of choice in higher education. (I say ‘illusion’, or ‘delusion’ because many have no and can have no access to higher education.) A citizen can choose to become educated at higher and higher levels or not. Once this choice is offered, education can be seen as an economic decision, and once education is seen through economic lenses, notions of consumer/ producer, private/ public good, academic freedom/ accountability become possible.
3. I think that we can hardly avoid the consumer or client/ producer metaphor any longer in higher education. B’s formulation of the point to consider reveals this clearly. With ‘goods’ (in the ‘produced thing’ meaning), there is an associated cost. Before one can become a consumer, there is a cost involved in making the product to be consumed. However, if the cost to buy the good is too high for any individual, a society has a choice: to produce the good collectively through income-level taxation, or to abandon the good. Taxation of income is not the only option, though. The cost can be passed on to consumers through higher taxes of that good specifically, as is done with tobacco and alcohol in many countries, or to utilise some kind of subscription service, as is done with fire services in certain parts of the U.S. Conceptually, university loans may be seen as a type of subscription service that is repaid afterwards. A key question is: who is the consumer of higher education, and the answers can be readily seen in different countries by looking at the levels and types of taxation found there.
Fuller, S. (2005). What makes universities unique? Updating the ideal for an entrepreneurial age. Higher Education Management and Policy, 17(3), 27–49.