Open Universities?

The CUiSL class on 20 July on What comes after capitalism? was well attended and got the new term off to a lively start. The next class will be on 21 September, 7 pm at Ruskin House. The topic will then be Universal Basic Income – do we want it?

CUiSL is an open, free university which treats its students as a resource, not empty vessels to be filled by experts. It is therefore very different from what we have come to expect from commoditised university education. These differences have been highlighted by two items covered in news reports over the summer. The first is the report that I have personally had confirmed by the supposedly Open University: that it is refusing to accept students from Cuba on the grounds that the OU, a British institution funded by British taxpayers, lacks a license from the US Treasury Department’s Office for Foreign Assets Control to do so. Such supine acceptance of US extraterritorial jurisdiction is breath-taking and says much about the independence of thought we can now expect from that once noble institution. The second event is the ongoing debate on student fees and who should pay them. Writing in City AM today (23 August), Paul Omerod, Visiting Professor at the UCL Centre for Decision-Making Uncertainty, acknowledges that universities have no incentive to reduce their fees as to do so would signal that their degrees were less valuable than others. His half-baked solution is to offer discounts to students with higher grades. How this fits with the ethos that universities are businesses left free to charge “what the market will bear” defies logic. A better solution would be, as we have argued below, for universities to reassume their responsibilities for providing the nation with further education and research and for the state to pay fees and subsistance grants financed by progressive taxation, including that on graduate incomes. One useful saving that could, however, be made would be for future free university education to be confined to those educated in state schools. For as long as we tolerate private education, why should those wealthy enough to pay for private education (i.e. ‘public’ schools) for their kids be allowed once more to access state funded further education for free?

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Student fees: putting the genie back in the bottle

The admission by Lord Adonis, the Blairite minister responsible for introducing them, that mushrooming tuition fees and student loans to pay for them were a terrible mistake is a long overdue admission. The Labour Manifesto contained a commitment to abolish student fees from this autumn. There was, however, no commitment to write off existing loans, although Jeremy Corbyn has publicly acknowledged here the problem and said he would deal with it if elected.

Putting the genie back in the bottle will not be easy. As restrictions on fees were progressively relaxed, the universities came to see themselves more and more as businesses competing with foreign universities, not public services. As businesses they felt entitled to pay their top executive whatever ‘the market’ would allow. Vice Chancellors now trouser £275,000 per annum on average and in some cases over £400,000. There will be tremendous resistance to returning universities to institutions whose purpose is to educate and support research, not businesses that sell degrees internationally and earn money from royalties.

Universities are not alone in being captured by ruling class interests and ignoring their social purpose. It will take more than the single term of a progressive, social democratic government to rid all our public services – education, health, social and infrastructural – of the corrupting influence of capital. Capitalism itself needs to be dismantled, but this cannot be achieved without a clear understanding of capitalism’s current trajectory, how we can influence it and (arguably) a clearer idea about what is to replace it.  What Comes After Capitalism will be the first subject we tackle in the new series of classes at the Communist University in South London (CUiSL) on 20 July. See link  for details.

What is a School of Government for?

The new Lavatnik School of Government at Oxford University now offers an intensive one-year masters degree in public policy (MPP) intended to equip students for a career in public service. While there is clearly a need for professional civil servants and public administrators, there must be a doubt about whether what they need can be taught in twelve months, especially when such careers increasingly involve, at the top of the heap, rotating doors between government service and the private sector. Integrity and commitment to the public good are, in any event, not susceptible to being taught in universities and are not demonstrated by the acquisition of a very expensive masters degree for which the student received no grant from the state or local authority for fees or subsistence. But is that what the Lavatnik School of Government is for?

The School is named after Leonard Lavatnik, Britain’s richest man. His wealth is thought to be some £17 billion, from which his ‘modest’ donation of £75 million to the School was sufficient to give him naming rights. As with many of the mega rich, the origin of his wealth is obscure, but, as he was born in the former USSR in 1957 and emigrated with his family to the USA in 1978, it’s a safe bet that he benefitted from the collapse of the USSR and the plundering of workers’ assets that then ensued. This does not represent much of a role model for future public servants in the UK, but Oxford Colleges, like Tory politicians, are notorious for not looking too hard at the source of their funding. The question remains, however, what is the purpose of the Lavatnik School of Government if not to “equip students for a career in public service”?

An important role for a prestigious School of Government will doubtless be to add to the stock of establishment ‘experts’ who can be wheeled in to justify the status quo. It has, however, another even more grubby purpose.

Professor Jonathan Wolff of this same Blavatnik School of Public Policy, writing in the Guardian today, clearly sees post graduate degrees as a product to be sold internationally. Rejoicing in the fact that in 2014-15 71% of full time masters level students and more than half of PhD students at UK universities come from overseas, he cautions against any possibility that the number of overseas students in UK universities could be capped. Such a cap would simply benefit “our competitors”, by which he means foreign universities. No social function is apparently attached to post-graduate degrees, including the MPP. They simply represent a business opportunity for universities, nothing more.

The Marxist view of the education system is that it’s there to reproduce and legitimate class structure and to meet the needs of employers for staff with the necessary skills, attitudes and conditioning. Post-graduate education is part of this system. Treating universities as businesses competing to flog prestigious degrees to those who can afford to buy them is perfectly consistent with this model.

it’s time to change the system. Education would be a good place to start, and university education should be high on our agenda.

Croydon Communists Respond to the Education White Paper

At the branch meeting last night (17 March) Croydon Communist Party condemned the Education White Paper Educational Excellence Everywhere published earlier that day. In the view of the meeting the White Paper heralded the end of local democratic control of education – indeed essentially the end of any democratic control over education as every state school is to be handed over to unaccountable multi-academy trusts (MATs) by 2020. Parent governors are to be abolished and the land owned by local authorities surrendered to the Secretary of State so that it can be leased to MATs. The White Paper offered no changes to the way in which MATs are to be regulated and to the level of fees and salaries they can extract from public funds.

The role of local authorities in education is to be confined to three areas:

 

  1. Ensuring every child has a school place
  2. Ensuring the needs of vulnerable pupils are met
  3. Acting as champions for all parents and families

 

The first duty is to be discharged by enabling so called free schools to open – but quite how local authorities can do this is unclear. Also unclear is how the other two duties can be discharged in the absence of any influence or power over MATs.

 

While the objective of the White Paper was clear enough, the meeting identified a number of contradictions indicating confused thinking at the Department of Education and in the mind of its Minister, Nicky Morgan. While proclaiming that it was not for the government to impose teaching methods (apparently reversing twenty years of politicians telling teachers how to teach), the highly questionable phonics method of teaching reading was endorsed. Similarly, on the contentious issue of religion in education, the government commits itself in the White Paper to work with the Churches and “relevant faith bodies”, whatever they are, to ensure that the religious character and ethos of Church and faith schools is protected. Thus for both curriculum and staffing academies will be allowed to “innovate”, i.e. employ priests to the exclusion of others and promulgate such views as creationism, without central interference.

There was only one reference to teaching unions in the White Paper: they are asked to work with others to identify and challenge the “culture” in and beyond schools which leads to “unnecessary workload”. It is not “culture” that led to unnecessary workload, it was government imposition of Ofsted and the National Curriculum. The role of teaching unions was not mentioned elsewhere in the White Paper, but here can be little doubt that a major objective of the paper is to break the influence of teachers’ unions in education. The meeting gave them every encouragement and support to resist the White Paper and committed the branch to do likewise.

Free Education and the Future of the Labour Party

The recent finding from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development that more than half of UK graduates are in non-graduate jobs is more a reflection of our slow and partial recovery from the recession triggered by the 2007 financial crash than it is a reflection of the quality of university education. It does, however, leave most graduates – i.e. those without parents in the top 1% wealth bracket who pay for their education and subsequent internships – with a burden of debt.

The Labour government of 1945 can take much credit for promoting the concept of free education open to all. The view that education is simply the route by which the wealthy secure the best paid and most congenial jobs for their offspring came, perhaps for the first time, under pressure. This advance received its first set back when the Wilson government, having introduced the Open University as a route into degree level education for workers who missed their school-based opportunity, required it in 1970 to charge modest fees. As Tony Simpson has argued, this was a critical mistake that opened the door to tuition fees across the board. First Thatcher froze grants and introduced loans, then in 1998 Labour abolished mandatory student grants and introduced £1,000 tuition fees. Despite Labour’s pledge in 2001 not to introduce top-up fees, they allowed them to rise to £3,000. Under the subsequent Tory government under Cameron, unrestrained by their Lib Dem partners (a treachery that cost them dear), fees have exceeded £9,000 per annum and even an OU degree now costs over £15,000.

There can be no better way of cementing the position of the top 1% on our country than to heap the cost of education on students. Not only does it secure the best jobs for the kids of the wealthy, but it encourages our universities to focus on a neo-liberal worldview and to think of themselves as multi-national businesses, not national centres of learning and research with responsibilities to educate citizens. It is no coincidence that the decline and disappearance of Marxist studies in universities has coincided with this development. To the extent that Marxist studies continue in the UK, it is through such voluntary initiatives as the Communist University in South London https://communistuniversity.wordpress.com/, not in our colleges and universities.

One of the most encouraging aspects of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign to become Labour Party leader has been the commitment he has given to scrapping tuition fees and restoring student maintenance grants. In his first major policy announcement of the campaign he said that they could be funded either by a 7% rise in national insurance for those earning over £50,000 a year and a 2.5% higher corporation tax, or by slowing the pace at which the deficit is reduced. His proposals received a negative response from the other candidates. Yet it is a modest price to pay for such an essential reform.

Should Jeremy Corbyn fail to be elected, or, if elected, should the Parliamentary Labour Party seek to block his proposals for scrapping fees and restoring maintenance grants, such is the importance of this issue that it is difficult to see how Labour can avoid the fate that befell it in Scotland. How this issue pans out may well be the key to their future.

Eduction, education, education

Ed Miliband’s announcement this week of some modest restrictions on the privatisation of the NHS was a welcome recognition that Labour has been listening both to their working class voters and to the advice and encouragement they are receiving from the left, especially from the Morning Star and the Communist Party. On education, however, Labour’s policies remain mired in Blairite conservatism. Tristam Hunt, Labour’s ineffectual shadow education secretary, is the son of Baron Hunt of Chesterton and has no experience of state education, having himself been privately educated. One of his contributions to the education debate has been to propose requiring public (i.e. private) schools to assist local state schools, thereby helping to perpetuate the myth of the superiority of the former and encouraging them to adopt an attitude of patronising condescension to the state sector. Hunt, as well as being the author of an indifferent biography of Fredrich Engels, was the author, along with the arch Blairite and self-promoter David Blunkett, of a report recommending the appointment of commissioners to be responsible for raising school standards, handling failing schools and for deciding on proposals for new schools. All this would do would be to conceal the hand of central government in education. What is really needed is: a return to democratically controlled education supervised and adequately funded by the local education authority; an end to free schools and academies; and at least an end to the privileged status of private schools. An even better solution for private schools would, however, be the transfer of all their assets to the local education authority – a modern day equivalent of the closure on the monasteries. After all, they claim to be charities. What could be more charitable than that?

As the student demonstrations in London on Wednesday confirmed, free higher education remains a legitimate demand by students and young people. And so it should be. Their parents enjoyed free higher education: why should their generation have to mortgage themselves for half a lifetime to enable universities to act like pseudo-businesses? Colleges and universities are inter-connected with the state and should be required to concentrate on what should be their role in a democratic state: providing open access to learning, education and research. Educating students from abroad for the fee income it generates has become a primary ‘business’ goal for them. While it could be a worthwhile secondary objective when these students come from under-privileged backgrounds and developing countries, thereby contribution to international development, it is not a legitimate objective when its purpose is to generate profit for the institution. Universities are no more businesses than are schools.  Labour should be listening to the students too.

Six Reasons Why Labour’s New Wheeze on Public Schools is Wrong

Tristam Hunt, the Labour shadow Education Secretary, announced this week Labour’s new wheeze on public schools. He wants to amend the 1988 Local Government Act to make the 80% relief from business rates that public schools now enjoy as charities conditional on them signing a “partnership agreement” to help local state schools. Here are six things wrong with this idea:

1. It is patronising to state schools. In terms of added value and cost efficiency, the state sector out-performs the public schools. They have nothing to learn from them.

2. As Professor Danny Dorland has pointed out, it is not a coincidence that the UK is one of the most unequal developed economies in the world and it spends more on private education than almost any other country. The Labour proposal will do nothing to change this.

3. The major tax break enjoyed by fee paying schools at present isn’t business rate relief, which costs taxpayers £160 million a year, it is their charitable status which enables them to avoid all the other taxes they should be paying as de facto commercial enterprises. Labour has backed down from making charitable status dependent on a public benefit test following a court case brought by the Independent Schools Council, mouthpiece for the public schools, in 2011.Have Labour not heard of parliamentary sovereignty?

4. It ignores the experience of other countries. In Finland 99.2% of all education is state funded. Finland routinely tops international education league tables and its public education system is recognised as contributing to its prosperity and social equality.

5. Business Rates are an inefficient tax and should, as will be argued in the forthcoming discussion paper from the Communist Party, be replaced by a Land Value Tax. Such a tax would tax the playing fields of Eton, but not public services such as state schools.

6. The Labour proposal might hit the more mediocre institutions but not the really powerful public schools which educate the children of the 1% elite. These could easily afford the £160 million a year they would lose under Labour’s proposal.

Labour’s proposal can therefore be dismissed as both irrelevant and inadequate. A headline in the Daily Telegraph this week did, however, provide this writer with some wry amusement. Above an article describing Hunt’s idea was the banner:

“Public school children will be forced to play football with state school pupils”

So that’s how Labour’s reign of terror will begin!

Stand up for Education

The NUT is to be congratulated on its Manifesto Stand Up for Education, published in an attempt to make education an election issue in the forthcoming General Election and to persuade candidates who are elected to pursue better education policies in the new parliament. You can download a copy at  www.teachers.org.uk/files/manifesto-16pp-a5–9623-_0.pdf

The Manifesto is a comprehensive document that, among other progressive measures, includes calls for an end to child poverty by 2020, abolition of the Bedroom Tax, more funding for early years education and restoration of financial support for post-16 students. At its heart, however, is a call for a broad, balanced curriculum and the abolition of league tables and the government’s hated inspection service, to be replaced with self-evaluation by schools and local authority oversight.

The undermining of Local Education Authorities and the politicisation of Ofsted were two of the most disastrous policies initiated by the Blair government under the mantra Education, Education, Education.  As the Manifesto argues, our schools need more time for teaching, not more tests. Politicians need to listen to parents and teachers, not press ahead with more top down policies and strategies whose purpose appears to be more to do with securing favourable headlines in the Daily Mail.

The Manifesto points out that between May 2010 and December 2013 the Department for Education paid out £76.7 million to 14 private companies to provide support services to academies and free schools. The Government has even been floating the idea that such schools could go even further and be run for profit. The Manifesto calls for this to be completely ruled out and for a halt to the outsourcing of schools and education services.

There are some places where the NUT’s Manifesto doesn’t go. This is fair enough for a teachers’ trade union, but the Communist Party has no such inhibitions. Two essential reforms over and above an end to Tory and Labour meddling in education and the provision of adequate funding are:

a. an end to student loans and a return to proper funding and support for students; and

b. abolition of the public schools.

For those who say we can no longer afford student grants, we say that this has to be a social priority and the cost, anyway, will not be so great – many current loans simply won’t be recoverable. To those who say that private education cannot be abolished in a ‘free’ society, we say there is nothing ‘free’ about a system that entrenches a form of social apartheid and promotes a ruling class drawn from a segregated elite. Private schools, a National Centre for Social Research report concluded in 2011, “produced Conservative partisans” with a “sense of superiority” and less concern for social inequality than their state-educated counterparts. As for the practicability of abolishing private schools, capitalist Finland has done so and regularly tops the various international education league tables.

As a compromise and interim measure, perhaps we could keep student loans for public school educated students and give grants for subsistence and fees for state educated students. Just imagine the squeals from the Daily Mail if the next parliament were to implement this modest and reasonable proposal!

If you would like to debate these ideas, or if you think that education is simply too important to be left to Westminster politicians, come along to the Croydon Assembly on Saturday, 15 November at Ruskin House, 23 Coombe Road, Croydon CR0 1BD. The Assembly runs from 10am to 4.30 pm and the opening speakers include Philipa Harvey, Senior Vice-President of the NUT. There will be an Education Workshop in the morning to discuss these ideas and many others.

Academies and Free Schools: the cracks begin to show

The Guardian reported today (18 July) a leaked draft report commissioned by Gove before he was sacked as Education Secretary into the alleged infiltration of Birmingham schools by extremists. The draft report was confirmed as apparently genuine by the BBC. It is written by a former head of the Metropolitan Police’s counter-terrorism command, Peter Clarke, and predictably finds a “coordinated, deliberate and sustained action” to introduce an “intolerant Islamist ethos” into the schools. Perhaps little else could have been expected given Clarke’s expertise and perspective, but, displaying an unexpected objectivity, he calls on the Department of Education to “review the process by which schools are able to convert to academy status” and comments that “in theory academies are accountable to the Secretary of State, but in practice the accountability can almost amount to benign neglect”.

Whether these comments are removed from the final version remains to be seen. Presumably whoever leaked the draft feared that they might be excised by Gove or his successor. If, however, even a counter-terrorism policeman can conclude that academies are unfit for purpose, perhaps the penny will eventually drop with the Labour Party.

Meanwhile, in a further serendipitous link between the Metropolitan Police and the Department of Education, we learnt this week that South Norwood police station will be gifted to a new ‘free’ school in Croydon – a form of school also responsible to the Secretary of State for Education but under even less control than are academies. Labour policy on free schools is to retain them and call them “parent-led academies”. If this is intended to reassure us, it has failed!

The key to improving education is to get Westminster politicians of both major parties to end their continuous, we-know-better-than-the- professionals meddling and sucking up to business interests keen to leech on public money. What’s needed is a statutory framework for comprehensive education and restoration of democratic, local authority control, managed by Local Education Authorities (LEAs) staffed by teachers and other appropriate professionals. Oh, and as a forthcoming report by the Communist Party will recommend, let’s end charitable status for public schools and charge VAT on school fees!

Martin Graham