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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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!