Scientific publishing has become an outstandingly profitable business, with higher profit margins than Apple, Google, or Amazon, even though viable lower cost and more socially progressive models of open access exist.
The pressure to publish more and more to demonstrate excellence substitutes quantity for quality and causes an unsustainable upward pressure on academic work and costs. The profit strategies of scientific ranking and publishing pose serious obstacles to scientific advancement as a cooperative enterprise, blocking longer-term benefits to the public, in the pursuit of a profitable, but highly unethical business.
Traditional procedures of quality assurance in higher education relied on self-evaluation and peer-review, with formative learning, improvement and scientific advancement being the major objectives. Peer-review is a scientific convention, rendering voluntary expert labour as a service to the field, according to collaborative academic conventions.
Recent decades have seen increasing demands for greater public accountability for higher education, in a context of diminishing public investment, higher demands for teaching and an increasingly desperate search for international student revenue, research and philanthropic funding.
The high-trust environment oriented towards learning and knowledge advancement has given way to low-trust mechanisms combining public accountability with private justification for fees, and diminished interest in quality improvement, according to a 2013 UNESCO report.
The conception of quality assurance may fall back into alignment with minimal standards for accreditation and standardisation. The latter is a logic that entered quality assurance from manufacturing – to ensure that industrial products meet a “standard” and are not defective. This conception of standards is obviously ill-suited to the creative activities of research and education, without even taking into consideration the diverse institution types, activities, outcomes and aspirations characteristic to higher education.
Excellence is a component of quality, but when understood too narrowly, it may overshadow broader dimensions of value and neglect important considerations of equity, purpose, inclusion, critical independence and creativity that are necessary for the production of scientific, cultural and public value.
But there is also a lack of consensus on what “public good” and “public value” actually mean, and how higher education institutions should contribute to it. This is unsurprising given the theoretical and political under-emphasis on public goods and the role of government and society in producing them. New Public Goods theory redevelops a theory of public goods to reflect “the public value of public things”, focused on three aspects of public value – democratic involvement, equitable access to goods produced and public benefit.
A New Public Good Approach
“Excellence” stands for winning in a competitive scenario, leaving the losers behind. Conceptions of “world-class” institutions are rooted in the privileged status accorded to Global North and Eurocentric institutions and conceptions of “world” culture and science.
Competitive reputation, prestige and elitism have always been present in elite universities, Nobel prizes and other forms of reputational competition. However, commercial rankings and publishing exert excessive global pressure on institutions worldwide, forcing them to compete and produce scarcities of reputation. Very often, quantity is mistaken for quality in this competitive environment.
Instead of pursuing excellence, universities with a public good mission might think more carefully and clearly about their mission and diversify their pursuit of quality in order better to serve the public good. This would be understood in terms of a transformative mission to democratise knowledge and engage the public; to deliver equitable solutions to public problems; and to ensure public benefits in terms of safety, ethics, well-being and sustainability.