Skip to main content

The public value of higher education

09 Feb 2021 | Alastair Work Alastair Work, Senior Associate at Advance HE and co-facilitator of our Strategic Leadership Programme, looks beyond the internal mechanics of the higher education sector to ask the question “who else cares?”.

When it emerged recently that one Danish billionaire holds more land in Scotland than the Crown, the spark was lit to ignite a centuries-old political debate about who owns Scotland. Pointed narratives about chieftains, barons, nobles, invaders, investors, clearances, feudal dues and exploitation are always ready to flare up. Yet, at another level, the vast majority of the people who live in Scotland are practically indifferent. This is their country; their landscape, their seascape, their monuments, their cities and their patrimony; who owns them is a background technicality.  They have right to roam as the old folk song goes: “For these are my mountains and this is my glen.”

Of course it probably appears otherwise to those who buy and sell land and property, who pay for its maintenance and exploit its riches. Their ownership extends to a sense of control over their assets, an entitlement to make decisions about them and a striving for autonomy about what is properly their business. Yet, as many have discovered, the greater the public interest in ‘their’ asset, the more likely it is that notions of private ‘ownership’ will be supplanted by the more open responsibilities of ‘stewardship’.

So, with that in mind, we might be curious to ask: who owns higher education?

At the granular level, dozens of autonomous institutions claim responsibility for their assets, their estates, their personnel and their hard-won reputations. In every wave of State-driven reform of the governance of higher education, as far back as the 1858 Universities Act, institutions have fought hard to defend their autonomy as self-governing entities, independent of external control. After 30 years of working in it, I would like to assert from within that ‘we’ are responsible for the higher education system.

And yet, at another level, just like the ordinary Scot roaming their hills and glens, the wider public may well feel that these are their universities and colleges, part of their patrimony and, regardless of who might currently be holding them in stewardship, they have a legitimate view and voice about their value to society.

When the Harvard professor, Mark H Moore, coined the term, “Public Value” in 1995, he was seeking an analogy between corporate shareholders and those with a legitimate interest in public services. Just as a private corporation is held to account by those who sustain it financially, so a public body should be accountable to its public. However, what that public may find valuable is not merely a matter of profitability and financial returns; it has a wider and more nebulous meaning. Over time, Moore’s concept of Public Value has been taken up not just by public bodies (like local government), but also by publicly-funded bodies (like many universities) and by private-sector organisations who recognise that their legitimacy depends on being regarded by the public as, for example, ethically and environmentally responsible. Public value is now recognised as something that most organisations do well to pay attention to.

At Advance-HE, we sometimes have the privilege of working not just with individual institutions but with whole systems of higher education, globally, nationally and regionally. In this work, the place of the higher education system in the society in which it is located is a critical consideration as is its capacity to provide and demonstrate public value. Not everyone believes in us as passionately as we do, not everyone perceives us through the same filters that we see ourselves. Some of our purposes, desires and expectations are contradictory. All this requires dialogue between us and our context.

Most often, this kind of work is bespoke and commissioned at the invitation of the system concerned, funded by governments, development agencies or regional partnerships. However, at Advance HE we do have an open programme: the Strategic Leadership Programme, where these dynamics are explored, challenged and rendered actionable. So if, amid the maelstrom of trying to manage “our” higher education system, you are beginning to wonder who else cares and may need our attention, this might be the time to join us in exploring the landscape.

Alastair Work

Alastair Work is a senior associate at Advance HE. based in Scotland. He has facilitated many of our programmes, open and bespoke, over the last 15 years. He has worked in-house with 60 different HEIs. He is currently co-facilitating Advance HE’s Strategic Leadership Programme and another leadership programme for the HE system in the Republic of Ireland and is working in-house with three prominent Universities in England.


The Strategic Leadership Programme is designed for those who are faced with a particular strategic challenge that would benefit from collaborative problem solving and practical solutions.

Application submission deadline: 

19 April 2021


22 April 2021,


We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

Keep up to date - Sign up to Advance HE communications

Our monthly newsletter contains the latest news from Advance HE, updates from around the sector, links to articles sharing knowledge and best practice and information on our services and upcoming events. Don't miss out, sign up to our newsletter now.

Sign up to our enewsletter