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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Follow the Cuban Model

In the posting last week I suggested that resistance to antibiotics should be added to the threats facing humanity. This has been confirmed by the Final Report to government from the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) published today. In the preface to this report, Lord O’Neill, now a government minister, accepts that routine surgeries and minor infections will become life-threatening once again and that the hard won victories against infectious diseases of the last fifty [surely sixty plus] years will be jeopardized. Unless action is taken, the report concludes, the number of deaths each year from AMR could balloon to 10 million, at a cumulative cost to global economic output of $100 trillion. On this basis, by 2050, the death toll could be a staggering one person every three seconds and each person in the world today will be more than $10,000 per annum worse off – quite a problem when the world average income is currently less than $18,000 per annum – but such distributional matters tend not to concern Tory ministers.

Some of the report’s recommendations are obvious, including restricting doctors from prescribing antibiotics until they have confirmed with tests that they are actually required. Others are conspicuous by their absence and reflect the prejudices of the government of which Lord O’Neill is a member. These include the need to block TTIP so that US factory farming methods dependent on intensive antibiotic use are not forced on us when this agreement with the  EU is signed. Leaving the EU is the best, possibly only, way of stopping TTIP  – what a shame that the official Brexit Campaign, dominated as it is by right wing Tories, is so reluctant to point this out.

The report concludes that remedial action can be financed from existing NHS budgets. That will generate a huge sigh of relief from a government unwilling to provide an adequate level of funding for even current services. It depends, however, on the assumption that the drug companies can be made to pay. The key recommendation is a new settlement with Big Pharma, a so-called ‘pay and play’ requirement: pay for the investment in new antibiotics and inoculation in exchange for continuing their privileged position as monopoloy suppliers to governments. Given Big Pharma’s record of dodging taxes and ripping off governments, this has all the prospects of a snow ball in hell. The knee jerk reaction from the trade body the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry was, as would be expected,  immediate rejection.

Big Pharma is the epitome of capitalism and the illusion that if we give the rich and powerful everything they want, the welfare of everyone else will be enhanced. The truth is that, as with global warming, international, profit driven enterprises cannot be trusted with the fate of humanity. They will always put the interests of the elites who own them or feed off them as managers first. They must be cut down to size, stripped of their monopolies and, in the case of Big Pharma,  replaced with democratically controlled research institutes. If the impoverished Cubans can do it, so can we!