Public Goods?

By Nigel Thrift

Universities are routinely described as public goods. But it is remarkable how little the phrase still tends to be interrogated even though, as the vast literature in economics shows, there are genuine problems of definition.

That will not do. I was stimulated to think about this issue again after reading a recent column by the indomitable Martin Wolf in the Financial Times. For, as Wolf points out, public goods are “the building blocks of civilization.” As he also points out, the challenge of supplying public goods “could be the defining story of the century.” Yet at the moment, one of the most central of public goods, higher education, seems to be coming under threat. There is agreement amongst most commentators that markets cannot do the job of supplying public goods like higher education on their own but also that states cannot fill out the whole field either, not least because the number and scale of public goods has increased markedly. But after that, the spectrum of opinion is very wide, partly based upon ideological grounds and partly based upon grounds of what actually works in practice.

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