EdX: Free University Education

I was lucky enough to go to University in the days where not only was tuition free but students got grants for living expenses (mainly beer and chips). Later in life my then employer paid for me to do an Open University Professional Certificate in Management. Today I’m doing courses at a variety of top Universities from around the world via EdX. These courses are completely free of charge. You can pay for verification and certificates if you want at nominal cost but if it is the learning you are after it won’t cost a penny. Currently I have courses at Berkeley and University of Washington on the go. This is all done via online videos and other course materials. Courses delivered to thousands of students globally at the same time, paid for by the verification fees from a relatively small number of those.

Whilst Oxford University has a single course available, no other British University seems represented, yet US and Australian institutions are enthusiastic participants. It strikes me that we, as a country, are way behind the curve here. It is disappointing.

Is the purpose of University education to educate the people, especially the workforce? Countries that invest in education reap the rewards in terms of productivity many times over. Or is it to maximise the fee income of universities? Like retail moving more and more online and high streets changing beyond recognition forever, so education at this level will start to move the same way. No longer will students be restricted by geography but, for many subjects that don’t require physical attendance, they can choose from any university in any country.

Here is my suggestion for a Lib Dem education policy. Within 2 years every publicly funded UK university should have at least one free course available on the EdX platform – centrally coordinated by the Open University to avoid too much duplication of content. The cost would be relatively low and perhaps self-funding via the verification fees, the benefits significant, and because the EdX platform is global, it helps sell the UK as a major centre of learning, up with if not ahead of the game. In case anyone is tempted by the suggestion, no, we should not set up our own platform. Why reinvent wheels and a major plank of the EdX approach is that it is a truly global collaboration not under the control of one country. Whilst our Government shouldn’t control the platform, it can oblige participation.

This ties in with current policy to give everyone a Personal Education and Skills Account to help them pay for education and training in later life – at least £3,000 three times over the course of their adult life, from age 25. That £3,000 times three would go an awful long way in validation and certification fees using EdX.

In the meantime I would encourage all to look at what is available from current EdX partners and take advantage of some of the best free education in the world.

Private Schools

Press reports about Labour policy towards private education seem to be a bit confused.

According to the BBC, which I hope is being objective, there is a motion that calls for funds and properties held by private schools to be “redistributed democratically and fairly” to other schools. They go on to report “the shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said “tax loopholes” that benefit private schools would be scrapped by a Labour government in its first budget.”

There is quite a big leap between the two. Closure and redistribution of assets is a bit like dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th Century. Undoubtedly in the 21st Century it would be illegal to appropriate privately owned property and redistribute it. It is a vote-losing nonsense that Labour opponents would have a field day with. What next? Private hospitals? It opens up nationalisation without compensation to every conceivable private activity. If people want to send their kids to private schools then so what? And frankly they still will, only those schools will be in Northern France, Belgium, the Channel Islands, Isle of Man, Ireland. It may well be the same schools, stripped of assets and moved offshore. It is a very silly motion almost impossible to implement, appealing to a very narrow extreme left-wing audience.

But what of the tax loopholes? Actually, we all know that public (private) schools are not really charities these days, regardless of their origins. They are fee-generating businesses catering mostly for the wealthy with the odd bone thrown towards their founding principles. They should no longer be afforded charitable status, their fees should be subject to VAT regardless of the views of Tory MPs, their income should be taxed as any business would be, and their premises should be subject to full business rates. I see no credible opposition to such measures other than the views of the wealthy vested interests. I suspect the move would be a popular one. Even Gove and Hammond have questioned the continued charitable treatment. The vast bulk of the population should not effectively be subsidising private education by affording it preferential tax treatment.

Genuine charitable schools should be given an option to convert to Free School status. You would also need to deal with the need for some boarding places to cater for children from remote island communities or where their parents are working overseas on official business. But these exceptions are minor compared to the main principle.

In my view the Lib Dems should be adopting the tax loophole closure proposals into official party policy whilst pointing out the futile and impractical, probably illegal, nature of the asset appropriation motion.