This paper critically interrogates the understanding of economics guiding higher education globally. It argues that dominant understandings of higher education economies are overly narrow, reductive and adverse to democracy and social justice and offers alternative economic ideas for re-imagining higher education in ways that better accommodate a democratic and just educational ethic.
Alternative ideas about economics and the economies of higher education are discussed in a spirit of re-creating the social imaginary, the symbolic matrices enabling people to imagine and re-create their social world (Castoriadis, 1987). The objective here is to offer alternative grounds for collective world-making that better articulate democratic and human concerns, while critically challenging neoliberal reforms. Such alternatives do not represent complete solutions to the problems of higher education under neoliberalism, but they are arguably necessary interventions to enable a fuller, more democratic debate about higher education and its roles with respect to democracy, social justice and the common or public good. These alternatives move us beyond the current neoliberal paradigm of competitive individualism, to face questions of social justice, the public interest, the role of science, the nature of the academy, and, most urgently, how sustainable human development might be secured.
A democratic, socially just response to global economic and educational crises and reform requires opening up and pluralizing the idea of what the higher education economy entails, offering alternative ways to think about economics and higher education. While decolonial and anti-oppressive critiques of the dominant, market competitive economic paradigm are highly visible, alternative economic concepts are rarely discussed. Therefore, this paper outlines different economic ideas about public goods and gift economies, as alternative starting points for the higher education imaginary.
A key specific purpose for higher education in knowledge societies is to convene the kinds of public discussions that allow ideas to be contested, enabling better democratic choice (Delanty, 2001). New theories about public goods that orient economic and educational theory and practice towards democratic practices and outcomes are therefore highly relevant (Khoo 2013). To say that higher education is a public good is to suggest that it be evaluated in terms of its ethical and political roles in fostering a legitimate, sustainable and democratic society.
The discussion of higher education gift economies points to specifically educational characteristics, focusing on three distinctive ethical attributes of educational gift economies— care, creativity and prestige. Due to their unique, asymmetric properties, the politics of gift economies are complex. The concluding discussion highlights the urgency and necessity of reframing the imaginary towards sustainable human development, drawing insights from current debates about human development and collective capabilities.