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.

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.