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.

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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.