Alistair Grayling’s big Bloomsbury-based thought experiment has been open for six months now. Since September, 60 students, mostly from independent schools, have shelled out an £18,000 annual fee to be part of the New College of the Humanities’ (NCH) first intake. And one question springs instantly to mind: is it worth it?
Despite initially touting itself as a University College, the NCH does not have degree-awarding powers, or even research students. Instead it prepares undergraduates (and undergraduates alone) to take the University of London’s International Programmes (ULIP) which are distance-learning degrees studied by around 50,000 people worldwide. The majority of ULIP students pay less than £1,500 per year for their course materials and examination fees, yet the NCH demands twelve times that and double the maximum £9,000 which can be charged by Oxford and Cambridge. Once living costs are factored in, it is estimated that students will spend more than £28,000 per year of their studies, just £2,000 less than the boarding costs at Eton.
NCH graduates will leave the college with a ULIP degree and a separate New College Diploma; an independent (and unproven) qualification, which Grayling claims “will reflect the greater richness of students’ studies.” He insists, “There’s a quarter more content and contact with some rather distinguished people and preparation for professional life.” But while Grayling, Simon Blackburn, Richard Dawkins, Niall Ferguson, and other faculty members are famous academics, this does not necessarily make them the best people to learn from. Just bumping up against the great and good doesn’t mean it rubs off on you; otherwise Sean Connery might have spared us the disappointment of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
What’s more, for all the celebrity staff, swanky halls of residence and snugly small class sizes, it could be that NCH students are missing out on a wider university experience – the intriguing anonymity of a crowded lecture hall, a college system or a Chinese restaurant turned nightclub that serves prawn crackers. With the job market becoming ever more competitive and companies increasingly looking for students to have the teamwork and leadership skills that are most commonly developed through sports and societies, NCH students may find getting a return on their investment harder than they first thought. Moreover, they are not be eligible to join University of London sports teams, and will have to pay additional fees to use the University library and student union facilities.
It is almost impossible to look at the paltry intake of 60 students and not feel at least slightly cynical. In total, 445 people did apply, many of whom decided that the NCH was not for them after they gained places at other universities. Oxford and Cambridge appear to be the college’s biggest competitors, which is unsurprising, given the remit of the NCH is essentially for people who didn’t get into Oxbridge. Indeed, this is a bit of a tawdry tagline: a place for kids that can’t get into Oxbridge, at only twice the price.
Promotion of an amazing university shouldn’t really be based on not being something else. It’s like saying, “Okay so you failed, but it’s fine, you can pay for something better.” Maybe Grayling and his gang are playing it safe in this respect. Maybe they secretly expect to surpass Oxbridge and are just being coy, or perhaps they’re a bit scared they might not. This humility would be fair enough. After all, the NCH has had no graduated students, so they don’t actually know how good they are yet, but then again, nobody does.
To my mind, the NCH gamble is a risky one. Charging near £60,000 to students for a degree available elsewhere for a fraction of the cost, this great libertarian extravagance has a responsibility to deliver, especially when its investors are expecting Oxbridge-level results. But in reality, any similarities with the old guard extend little beyond hyperbole.
In making comparisons between the NCH and Oxbridge, emerges a candid cross section of what the college really is – a cheap (or rather expensive) imitation. While the NCH might have captured the most superficial things about Britain’s oldest universities: the private school atmosphere and well known academics, none of this matters without the solid foundation, historical locale, ancient buildings, heritage or tradition. The NCH might profess itself as an Oxbridge alternative, but in truth its only advantage over any of the other “reject” centres is the double bed in every room.
Writing this, I feel quite relieved I came to York, not just because I’ve saved myself a fortune but I’ll avoid the awkward “where’s that?” when being asked where I went to university.