Worlds of Education

Recovering the political in the idea of education as a public good - and why this matters

published 23 April 2018 updated 23 April 2018

By Susan Robertson, University of Cambridge

On more than one occasion I have felt a distinct sense of unease at how much of educational activity is now framed in economic terms. Learners are ‘human capital’  - or to use a phrase that the economist, Gary Becker, coined – ‘an abilities machine’; education is an investment whose value is measured by the size of the financial return to an individual in the future (graduate premium); whilst education in an increasing number of countries is reported as a services sector directly contributing to Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

That education would be compared in the same breath as iron ore or timber – and in this moment reduced to a tradeable commodity - tells us something of the consequences when such equivalences come to mediate the value of education.  In this case, exporting more education abroad is one lever in the policymaker’s toolkit to deal with problems of GDP.

The concept that has deeply penetrated the education world is the idea of education as a public or private good. It was the economist, Paul Samuelson, who initially launched this theory in the 1950s in his discussion of collective consumption goods. In deciding whether a good was public or private, Samuelson, and later on economists such as Mancur Olsen, invoked the following rationale; That goods are considered public if they are non-rival in consumption, and have non-excludible benefits.

What does this mean, you ask to describe our activities in this way? In essence non-rivalry means that one person can consume the good without diminishing its availability to others. Non-excludability means that a person cannot be excluded from the benefits of a good, irrespective of whether they have contributed to its production.

Economists use the example of clean air here. One person breathing clean air does not reduce the amount of clean air available to others. Likewise, we also cannot stop a person breathing clean air that others have access to when they are in the same environment.

For the economists, a market in clean air would not work, as clean air (available to everyone) is not able to be effectively priced and allocated through market transactions. To create a market, a good or service needs to be enclosed and privatised, and from there priced to enable an exchange between a buyer and a seller.

We encounter the first problem in this assumption – that what defines something as public or private is its rivalrous and excludable (or not) qualities and that these are simple, clear and irrefutable. In essence such goods are assumed to have technical properties that make them either better or less suited to coordination by the market versus the state.

The idea that economic theories are simply that, socially-constructed accounts of the way in which the world works and can be disputed, is regarded by economists as simply wrong-headed.

The second problem is the logic that follows from the assumption; that a good with potentially rival and excludable properties is, or ought to be, private, and that this provision ought to be left to the market.  Given that education is regarded as having potentially rival and excludable properties (different providers of different kinds of education; not everyone can choose to go to the same school), it follows too that education in this line of reasoning ought to be private, and left to the market.

The role of the state is thus reduced to providing market rejects whilst the market is elevated to the status of being the superior form of coordination. Setting aside the fact the market does not necessarily, by definition, coordinate activities more efficiently (though the assumption is that it does), there is a bigger issue that I want to flag here.

This bigger issue is one of values, politics and the social nature of our thinking.

The injection of a particular kind of economic thinking into our social understandings – in this case neo-classical economic thinking (that markets are a neutral and efficient means to coordinate our activities; the state is ideological and divisive), does important work in shaping how we see the world, and our relations to each other. In doing so, it neutralises the social, and depoliticises decisions, which are profoundly political and matters for the public.

When we frame education in public and private good terms, and tread a tightrope in terms of how much is public and how much is private and calibrate fees accordingly, we are, in this moment, taking these distinctions for granted.

Yet what if we challenged this distinction and the dominance of economic thinking in education? What if we dared to make a different set of value-based assumptions, and took the view that education was a societal good that contributed to the public good. What actions might follow from this?

First, we would discuss as a society what we think is important for us to learn. Second, we would likely not use terminology, like human capital, but refer to people or persons, in ways what would acknowledge them not as abilities machines but complex social moral and political beings with needs, capabilities and vulnerabilities.

Third, we would open a discussion on how education, as a societal good, is to be provided, and by whom, and how we manage the complexities of education as means of allocating to the labour market and generating resources so as to limit differences and maximise equity (but not conformity). Fourth, we would ensure an ongoing public conversation about the centrality of education to producing a public, and a political one at that, able to place limits on any one group framing up our present and future in ways which place economics beyond politics, and where markets are elevated above politics and society.

Why this matters, of course, is that education – as a societal good – is both a means to participating in the public, and means of creating ‘the public’. As such, it is fundamentally important we contest the narrow economic framings of education, and make political and disputable those assumptions that have caused considerable damage to education, and the public good over the past two decades.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.