Grayling’s university: the first of many?

The New College of Humanities (NCH) is the logical reaction to the crisis in university funding. We should watch the experiment rather than attack its creator.
Earlier this month it was announced that a new university would be established in Bloomsbury, Central London, with an all star cast of academics, led by the celebrated philosopher A. C. Grayling. What really caught the headlines was that this institution would be entirely private and charge its undergraduates a whopping £18,000 a year.
From a self confessed “pinko academic” this move seemed shocking. Critics have pounced on what many see as an elitist cash-in, exposing degrees for what they are; “luxury consumables” aimed at a middle class market.

The new college will be a place where one-to-one tutorials will be the norm and students can study with world-leading academics, such as Sir David Cannadine, Richard Dawkins, and Grayling himself. NCH will offer degrees in history, law, economics, English literature and philosophy.

“We should watch the experiment rather than attack its creator”

He has stressed that one in five of NCH’s students will be financially assisted, enabling students to pay substantially less that the £9,000 fees elsewhere. Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, one of the academics who has made the jump to the private sector, has claimed this could be the only place in England where free university education is on offer. But this defence does not seem to have stemmed the torrent of criticism.

The NCH is the only institution created since the new fees system was announced. Universities are now dependant on students for funding, most obvious in humanities subjects where funding has essentially been removed. The creation of private universities is the logical reaction to a system in which institutions are required to comply with a set of regulations without any financial incentive.

Universities are right to ask what is in it for them. Pressure on the tutorial system and student numbers will force many to conclude that being part of the public sector is not a wise decision. In establishing NCH, Grayling is following the incentives offered by this new system but at the same time his NCH will test the government and the public’s taste for private universities.

The NCH will probably be the first of many. The greater risk will come when existing universities consider entering the private sector making caps on tuition fees meaningless.

If the Coalition really wanted to introduce market forces into higher education their policy has been a total success. The NCH is a fascinating experiment which will show just how sustainable a British higher education system based on parental wealth really is.

3 comments

  1. “Logical reaction”? Rubbish. A university that charges twice the amount of its “public sector” rivals’ fees whilst offering the same pedagogy (even directly plagiarising it in some cases – see http://bit.ly/m6VwIN ) is a logical reaction only at a completely base and callous level – namely as a cash-in that kicks a university system that is already on its knees thanks to coalition policy. Meanwhile, Grayling, Dawkins et al. are representative of one of the worst exports of academia, namely the ageing “enfant terrible” who makes a career out of attacking the straw man of organized religion, before going on to provide further superficial musings for an audience of genteel liberals whose tastes and attention-spans are too narrow to actually go and read something of genuine critical and intellectual import. (We’re talking about a breed that gives Alain de Botton the time of day.) In short, I wouldn’t expect Grayling’s NCH “project” to do anything groundbreaking during its lifetime.

    But all the same, it’s too late now for nostalgia about how the existing university system ought to be there for the greater moral and cultural good. Those who care about the future of the humanities should recognise how the stakes are now organised, spelled out by the fact that only STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) subjects are recognised as worthy of funding by today’s political-economic orthodoxy. In which case, York should be seen as exemplary, in the fact that it is pushing forward with the development of plush facilities for the business-centred subjects it offers (e.g. management, law), as well as for hiring out these same facilities to any private firm that is ready to pay up.

    If the humanities is to survive, then it needs to be taken out of the university system completely – out of the hands of self-serving careerists like A.C. Grayling, and back into the public space where it belongs (particularly now in the age of the internet, “Web 2.0” and so on). A system which charges an average of £27,000 for three years of on-off education, and which must (of necessity) commodify its own produce (i.e. research papers, journal articles, texts, etc.) out of the price range of the ordinary person is at the same antithetical to the very idea of education as a public good. If we want to make sense of our own world in the very way that only the humanities allows us to do, then its time now that we actively wrench it free of a system which, up until now, has systematically disregarded it, only to pronounce its obsolescence at the present moment.

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  2. I’m guessing the author wasn’t required to fund his own education. Right? Just a hunch.

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  3. It is disappointing that your first reaction, Steve, is to speculate about my personal circumstances. If it makes you feel any better I can assure you I will be paying off the debt my university education has incurred for many years to come. You are right about my pre-university education though, I did not have to pay for it; the comprehensive I attended did not charge anything. It is always best to judge opinions as they stand rather than solely on personal background.

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