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.

Debate and the future of CUiSL

The BBC’s news coverage is practically indistinguishable from that of the capitalist press, and even its topical comedy output is full of jibes about Jeremy Corbyn’s supposed “unelectability” , so it is gratifying when a programme that questions, however modestly, the capitalist status quo occasionally slips through. A recent example was a 30 minute programme on Tuesday, 14 December when the self-styled “Global Philosopher” Professor Michael Sandel asked Do Those on Top Deserve Their Success?

Professor Sandel is no Marxist, but he does share with us the approach Question Everything. It is not Professor Sandel’s method to provide answers: rather, he poses questions to a worldwide, selected audience, albeit a predominately middle class one, and examines their responses. This programme was essentially an exploration of whether we should be aiming for a society in which there is equality of opportunity or equality of outcome. Capitalism cannot, of course, provide either, but to facilitate debate, the Professor hypothesised a society in which everyone started equally and then asked whether his audience whether they would prefer a meritocracy or a lottocracy, the former, being a society in which a minority ‘won’ through ability and effort and the latter being one where chance determined success.

The Professor’s hypotheses, stated and unstated, were flawed. We cannot have a society in which everyone starts with the same chance of success unless inherited wealth is banished. This obvious point was left unstated, probably because it is incompatible with all class-based societies, including capitalism. Another unstated assumption was that society must inevitably be based on competition between individuals. Again, while this is an implicit assumption under capitalism, it is not the way in which we will organise society under socialism. As Marx said in his Critique of the Gotha Program , in the transitionary period it will be from each according to their ability to each according to their work and, under full communism, to each according to their need.

If we overlook the failure to state awkward assumptions, the discussion in this programme was the type of probing debate that the Communist University of South London was supporting last year. CUiSL took a breather in 2016 but is considering if and how it might be re-activated in 2017. One possibility is a return to student presentations followed by debate; but another possibility is to conduct some collective research into a specific issue. One that has been suggested is the economics of the housing crisis and how to address it. If you have views on these or other possibilities, please email them to cuisl@communist-party.org.uk .