Columnists Features

Cherish the good: It is public, private

AS THE University of Zambia (UNZA) celebrates 50 years of existence this year, it is important to look back and appreciate the role it has played in national development.
From 1966, it has churned out thousands of experts in various fields. These, together with many others from different institutions of higher learning in the country, have been the engine of Zambia’s economic growth.
It is, therefore, worth celebrating UNZA’s golden jubilee, knowing that the institution and other universities and colleges in the land are there to prepare individuals for a bright future and a prosperous nation.
The fact that education at that level is directly concerned with development at both individual and societal (national) level, university and college students should indeed seriously reflect on why they are in those institutions. Only then can they come out of those places as responsible individuals who should take up positions in various sectors of the economy, whether formal or informal.
So, because higher education offers benefits to an individual and society as a whole, it can be argued that, to a large extent, it is both a public and a private good. The private benefit is looked at from the perspective of economic and social attainment.
A student must study hard. At the end of their course they will either get a good job or engage in a business or businesses that will further enhance their careers. In this way, they will reap the rewards of their individual efforts while at college or university.
Individuals, especially women, are also able to live and aspire for meaningful, creative and resilient lives. Education strengthens their voices in community, national and international affairs. Besides, it opens up great employment opportunities and sources of social mobility.
On the other hand, there are what are called social benefits of education. Increasing literacy levels, for example, leads to improved health outcomes not only for oneself, but for the family, as well as the community. It also promotes broader participation in democratic processes, reduced crime, violence and poverty rates, and enhances social equality, among others.
Clearly, not all of the benefits that higher education offers accrue to the students. When many people go to college or university, society tends to benefit. Others that work with experts who have acquired higher educational qualifications are bound to earn higher incomes because of the added flexibility, innovation, and productivity of the labour force.
Education does not only aid one to become knowledgeable, it enables people to become active citizens whose activities inevitably benefit many others around them. For example, there are more new goods and services for all people in society to enjoy because of the varying contributions of college and university graduates.
So, the benefits of tertiary education are shared by the participants and the rest of society. This is the more reason why governments must be fully involved in the education of their citizens at that level. Subsidising institutions and their students, as the case is for public universities in Zambia, particularly UNZA and the Copperbelt University, underscores the reasonableness of cost sharing.
While inability to pay the full cost due to high poverty levels and other related factors – especially in developing countries like Zambia – is one of the reasons why governments pay part of students’ tuition fees, among other costs, the fact that benefits are shared by an individual and society should make them (governments) see the importance of funding higher learning institutions, particularly public ones.
If more public colleges and universities are built, with government funding at the heart of a more equitable system, then all students will have access to a high standard of education regardless of their background or circumstances.
Private institutions of higher learning are, to a large extent, for-profit. In a way, as students in such colleges and universities pay the full cost, it means they foot the bill for the benefits to be shared by all members of the society. This is where privatisation has had some negative effects on education as a public good.
Since higher education is a public/ private good and a human right, it must be fully promoted (and funded) by all stakeholders, including students, the corporate world and the government.

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