Public Value of Higher Education

05 February 2018

What is the purpose of higher education in our world today? Is it exclusively for job training, in which the individual student is the primary beneficiary, or are there other, more public values accrued?

To answer this question, consider a sampling of university mission statements from around the world:

University of Cambridge

The mission of the University of Cambridge is to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning, and research at the highest international levels of excellence.

Harvard College (Harvard University’s undergraduate college)

The mission of Harvard College is to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society. We do this through our commitment to the transformative power of a liberal arts and sciences education.

Sunway University

To nurture all-round individuals and devote ourselves to the discovery, advancement, transmission and application of knowledge that meets the needs of our society and the global community.

While we certainly want our graduates to be employable, the emphasis on “society” in the above statements seems to imply that there is some bigger goal involved. For these purposes, I would define society as not only local, regional, and national communities, but referring also to humanity, posterity, or the “human condition.”

Educated graduates represent one of the products that Society receives from the university. Other products include contributions to the sum total of knowledge or culture (AKA “scholarly activities”) and providing services to the local, national, and international communities. This explains why our academic staff are evaluated on three different areas: teaching, scholarly activities, and service. It also explains why Society has an interest in helping to fund higher education, through government support and/or philanthropic contributions.

Public Benefits to Society

Preparing students for future careers is an example of an individual benefit of higher education. The individual student earns a degree and receives a benefit as a result. In this article, I want to address the various public benefits derived from higher education. These are benefits to society at large.

Several studies have sought to define various economic benefits that institutions of higher education bring to particular communities. These benefits go beyond the financial benefits of funded research that leads to new products or services, encompassing also the increased income bases enjoyed by communities with more university graduates. A report from the Milken Institute explores the economic benefits experienced by regional populations:

Education increases regional prosperity: Adding one extra year to the average years of schooling among the employed in a metropolitan area is associated with an increase in real GDP per capita of 10.5 percent and an increase in real wages per worker of 8.4 percent…

A report released by the Florida College System Council of Presidents reveals a different public benefit:

Moreover, because education reduces one’s likelihood of smoking, abusing alcohol, committing crimes, or drawing welfare or unemployment benefits, Florida’s public colleges save taxpayers some $158.6-million per year, the report says.

The Oregon Business Council addresses a broader view of benefits to Society:

Business has a long-term interest in the broader purposes of higher education. These include shaping within individuals an understanding of human experience, a shared sense of community, constructive values, intellectual curiosity, critical thinking skills, and the ability to communicate and work with other people. While these are the attributes of well-rounded individuals, they are also the hallmarks of employees who make businesses more competitive and successful.

It seems clear that there are many benefits to Society beyond merely preparing graduates for employment. Walter W. McMahon defines the external benefits of education as those that “spillover to benefit others in the society, including others in future generations.”

The external benefits of education include education’s direct benefits to the development of civic institutions that contribute slowly over long periods of time to the rule of law, democracy, human rights, and political stability. Externalities also include direct benefits to longevity, reduced poverty, lower crime rates, lower public welfare and prison costs, environmental sustainability, contributions to happiness and social capital, and effects from new ideas and adaptation of the results of research. External benefits of education also include indirect effects of education that are over and above these direct benefits. Indirect effects operate through other variables and feed back over time to increase the private market and nonmarket benefits. Examples include the contribution of education to better governance, political stability, and trade that then indirectly increases growth. Indirect effects aid productivity and set the stage for new rounds of growth in the future, benefiting others and future generations.

Clearly, there is much more going on at our universities than simply vocational job training. As a non-profit institution, Sunway University has a mission that compares favorably with the world leaders in higher education. Yes, we do help our graduates on the road to successful careers, but we do so much more. We serve society.

For The Edge Malaysia


Don Bowyer
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