Launch of The Higher Education Task Force Report

Wednesday, March 1, 2000 Omni Shoreham Hotel, Regency Ballroom, Washington, D.C.
Kenneth Prewitt, Vice chair of the Task Force for Higher Education

David Bloom played a key role in helping us launch this task force. Indeed, if there were justice in the world, the report would actually be known as the Bloom Report. But there is no justice in the world. You all know how these things happen, that if it turns out to be a success it has many many parents. If it were a failure of course, like always, it's an orphan.

I want to get to the public interest argument by asking a question you'll find a little odd. You're here today as part of something called the Human Development Network, presenting the Human Development Week. Where did the words Human Development come from? How did that metaphor organize an event like we're having now? If this event had happened thirty years ago, would it have been called Human Development Network Human Development Week? No. The idea had to get started. It actually got started by the Committee on Human Development here in Chicago, 40 years ago. As best I can tell, that's when the concept of human development got some analytic currency.

That committee has long since disbanded, but the idea expanded, gelled, crystallized and suddenly we have things called Human Development Weeks and Human Development Networks.

I want to suggest that this Task Force is trying to put an idea in play just as 30, 40 years ago a group of intellectuals managed to put the idea of human development in play. The idea that we're trying to put in play - and certainly the president of the World Bank has already summarized it - the benefits of higher education are not captured by adding up all of its private benefits. Or, to frame it in the positive, higher education generates public goods.

That's really what President Wolfensohn was talking about when he said we've got to mainstream it. We're not going to mainstream higher education in the World Bank, or in this network, because it produces a lot of private benefits. We're only going to mainstream it because it generates an enormous list - a critical list - of public goods, public benefits, public interests. Or else why would the Bank want to mainstream it?

I would hope that 30, 40 years from now there are conferences which talk about higher education as a public good, and that people will have almost forgotten how that conversation got started.

Obviously, in some respects, the conversation is as old as higher education. It goes back to the 11th century - and I am obviously in close communion here with my co-chair Henry Rosovsky in saying that there will still be institutions of higher education well into the next millennium. They will be reconfigured, as they've been reconfigured over this millennium, but nevertheless you've got to have something that performs the function of tertiary education.

We've already begun to identify some of the public goods that are associated with higher education. We talk about generating a core of highly trained individuals: how can you have a legal system, how can you have a financial system, how can you have a contract system, how can you have a health system? How can you have any of these systems without high level trained personnel? And where do they come from? They come through tertiary education. That's a public benefit. Obviously there are private pay-offs for the individuals who get this: higher earnings, productivity, enhanced life of the mind, and security, but the spill over effects of those talents and those skills are enormous for the society at large.

I don't want to underestimate the importance of higher education as a place where ideas germinate, where you promote the idea of reasoned discourse, of argumentation, of putting ideas on the table, of discussing them, and testing them. Society needs that kind of space, and higher education provides that at the highest levels of intellectual accomplishment. Indeed the university is organized to do that. It's organized to make sure that in the selection of research topics and intellectual questions there's ideological neutrality. You don't select them because you've already pre-decided how they're supposed to benefit this, that or the other social groups. Sometimes that happens but the universities fight against that through the whole process of peer-review, scholarly review, research and testing, cross-disciplinary spill-overs.

The whole apparatus that's represented in a university creates a certain kind of intellectual climate (or intellectual space or intellectual power) in a society. That in itself is a social good - not just of benefit to people who are inside of it at any given time, but it has enormous spill-over effects.

Let us not forget the whole argument that is very current now about the civil society - how to create that kind of discourse in a community. Higher education at its best stands for those kinds of principles: that everyone who's got a good idea has the right to put it on the table, and argue about it. Those kinds of principles are all represented in higher education at its best - and indeed at its best (not always in practice) it represents a certain moral leadership for the society.

Obviously, at times, higher education has failed in that respect. Obviously, in South Africa, institutions did co-operate with apartheid. Obviously, in fascist Germany, they participated with the rise of Nazism. After all, we saved the social sciences in Latin America by having leading intellectuals flee the university system for a period during periods of totalitarian dictatorial rule.

I'm not saying that higher education plays its role of moral leadership always and everywhere - but at best it does. That has to be conceptualized as a social benefit, as a public good, in the public interest.

So there's a long list of things that as you begin to think about it, clearly do associate themselves with higher education at its best. So why do we bother to make the argument at all?

First, markets don't function well in very many developing countries - and therefore we have to make some sort of compensation for that. Even where a market is functioning well, it doesn't take into account the social benefits that flow from a higher education system.

Quite honestly when the Task Force first met and began to deliberate, it became anxious as it looked out and saw the degree of privatization of higher education: fee-based, privatization, commercialization, for-profit-ization - and that is going to expand as part of the higher education system. It's not a bad part, but it's the only part that's going on. If it continues, we're going to have lost a lot of what we want to insist is quite critical: the social benefits and public interest argument.

It's really a bit (I'm not sure what the word is) - brave - for a mere political scientist to walk into a World Bank meeting and start talking about public good and rate of return. If it gets too tough I can always retire to the calm of the US census bureau. But we are being very deliberate in devoting this much space in this panel to the argument that we cannot reduce the benefits of higher education to the conventional rate of return, which has to do with the benefits individuals accrue. If that becomes the underlying definition and argument for higher education it will shrivel, we believe, as a system and we don't want it to shrivel as a system.

Under the best of circumstances, we would incorporate rate of return analysis into the analysis of higher education, but we would expand it to make sure that rate of return also has a social rate of return - and not just a private rate of return attached to it. We hope not to lose sight of the fact that universities have enormous public and social benefits - not just the benefits to the people that we push through them and that get the lead status and high salaries. If you only focus on that as what higher education is doing, we will lose the deep purposes that they play, not just in our society but in the developing world. There is a reason that higher education has been funded by the state; funded by philanthropic non-taxed money - from its beginning by the church, from the 11th century; and currently, by heavy, heavy inflows of resources that come from non-market sources - and that's because there's a deep recognition that universities perform a role well beyond their immediate role in the market.