In Summary

  • In reality, ‘public’ is anything that fulfils a public function, whether state or privately owned
  • Strathmore had to be built outside the city; white residents within the city boundaries would not tolerate a mixed college within their neighbourhood
  • A proper understanding of the difference between state owned, public function and privately run enterprises may be the start of proper macro-planning

Chile is an amazing country, a success story in Latin America and the world. I was recently invited to give a seminar at one of its best universities, the Universidad de los Andes.

I also attended a meeting with the authorities of the Universidad Católica de Chile, a 130-year-old university which ranks in the top 50 in the world in several specialisations. 

These two marvellous academic powerhouses are located in Santiago de Chile, the capital of a country that walked out majestically from a past full of misery, poverty and human rights abuses.

Today, Santiago is one of the most beautiful capitals in South America and perhaps among the best in the world. Its unique geography would excite even the least poetic visitor.

It’s trapped between two world marvels; the snow peaks of the imposing Andes mountains to one side, and the Pacific Ocean to the other.

The Andes University Campus, which overlooks the city, is an artistic masterpiece. It was designed by some of the best Chilean architects under the supervision of a Boston firm with wide experience in the design of university campuses worldwide.

Its buildings blend with the snow peaks that tower above it. From its library, the view of Santiago, lower down in the valley, is breathtaking. 

I try to take advantage of these conferences, seminars and meetings to learn from my host’s good and bad experiences, practices, challenges, successes and trials.

With a keen and observant eye, the visitor may gather essential knowledge by asking the right questions, and listening to their answers with care. 

POLITICISING INSTITUTIONS

One of the most enriching lessons I gathered from Chile relates to research and funding. The government makes public funds available for public interest research, whether carried out by public or private institutions.

In today’s approach to government funding, we usually make the terrible mistake of confusing public goods and public interest with state ownership. So, we call ‘public’ that which is owned by the state, regardless of its nature, function or utility.

In reality, ‘public’ is anything that fulfils a public function, whether state or privately owned. Thus, we speak of public transport when our matatus are privately owned, or public utilities no matter if they are in the hands of the State or a private individual.

This confusion, between what is public and what belongs to the State, defeats the principle of subsidiarity, which is a key principle in any modern, developing democracy.

This principle opens a free space for citizens to organise themselves, whether in education, civic life or utilities, and the State comes in to help and assist where the citizens do not reach or cannot manage.

A state that applies this principle in clever and innovative ways opens the economy and triggers innovation well beyond whatever the bureaucratic apparatus of the State would ever have imagined.

For example, universities are public, just like all matatus, mobile telephony companies, utilities, etc.  They fulfil a public function and they are open to the public in general.

This is often misunderstood by the Rousseaunian view that looks at ownership only, in disregard of the function and nature of the institution in question.

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