It is entirely possible to say that education is good for the public, that it’s a good – perhaps service but still – desired by the public but it’s not true to say that education is a public good. That’s because “public good” is a technical term and we thus need to use it in that technical sense.
Yes, this is important, more than mere pendantry. For there are very good reasons indeed to say that government has a role in the production of public goods. But not in goods for the public.
So, Angela Rayner is wrong here:
A Labour government would end the “failed free-market experiment in higher education”, taking a tougher line on vice-chancellors’ pay and improving academic diversity, the shadow education secretary is set to announce. Angela Rayner will outline a series of major policy steps that would allow regulators to intervene in how universities in England are run, including how they recruit and reward staff. Speaking to the University and College Union (UCU) conference on Saturday, Rayner will say: “The Tories’ obsession with free-market dogma has gone too far. Education is a public good and should be treated as such. Our universities are there for all of us.”
A public good is something that is non-excludable and non-rivalrous. We can’t stop people getting it and their getting it doesn’t diminish the amount available to others.
We make the distinction because it’s very difficult to make money out of such things. Thus a pure free market system won’t provide much of them. But sometimes they’re nice things to have so, yes, a role for government in providing them. Setting up a system to make sure they’re produced perhaps. Even, possibly, providing them directly.
For example, we’re often told that vaccination is a public good. It’s not. A vaccine given to one child cannot then be given to another – it’s rivalrous. And we can indeed simply tell Little Timmy no vaccine for you sunshine. In fact, when Little Timmy has an immune system disorder we might well do so – it’s excludable.
The public good is herd immunity. Once we’ve established that then all enjoy it without reducing the amount available, we can’t stop anyone enjoying it once it exists.
So, perhaps a government role in creating herd immunity. The NHS pays for all vaccines for all kids, government provision. The US system says no going to school unless you’ve had your shots – more or less. Government aids the creation of the public good but doesn’t supply it.
Education – it’s excludable because 50% don’t go to university. It’s rivalrous because one bum on seat means the lecture hall can’t take another on that same seat. Education isn’t a public good.
Could be that being part of a generally literate and educated society is a public good, that’s true. Adam Smith thought so about primary education. But it’s still not the education itself that is the public good. It’s that general educatedness which is – something that government might indeed usefully have a role in. By, say, closing down every grievance studies course.
But if we go around shouting that education is a public good then we’re going to get everything that follows wrong. At which point we might just hope for our rulers to be educated….and wouldn’t that be good for the public.