New College of Calamities

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.

6 comments

  1. 27 Feb ’13 at 2:48 pm

    Edward Grande

    Good points. Ish.

    But I couldn’t disagree more wholeheartedly with the idea that “none of this matters without the (…) historical locale, ancient buildings, heritage or tradition”. You’ve detailed precisely the facets of education that don’t matter. Also, though it is a risk for the first undergrads at the NCH, there isn’t any sense of the longevity of the place in your perspective: in ten years, when the best otherwise often poorly paid academics are attracted to it, and it attracts some of the highest calibre (albeit highest net worth) students, there will be nothing calamitous about it.

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  2. 27 Feb ’13 at 8:30 pm

    Lizzie Hughes

    Hello Rohan,

    I am a student at the NCH and having found this I’d like to just point out a few things that seem to be confused in your article.

    Yes, the fees are £18,000, but I am unsure if you aware that a substantial amount of us are on either scholarships (no fees at all) or exhibitions (£11,000 off, making it cheaper than all other universities – £7,000), including myself. It is, of course, perfectly understandable to find the price somewhat concerning, but I fear that you have misunderstood. We do not choose to pay for little to no contact hours (or to ‘bump’ against) with the ‘celebrity’ professors, but for the extraordinarily qualified teachers and high calibre of all the professors, not just the big names. We have the same style of teaching as Oxford in the sense that we have one to one tutorials and group tutorials every week as well as our lectures, meaning that contact hours are both larger in number, and more beneficial than some other universities. On top of this, we have access to some of the best minds in the country. Understandably, the £18,000 could be alarming, but I think that on reviewing what we are getting for our money, so to speak, it is entirely worth it.

    In terms of employers and our future career prospects, indeed the world is changing at a rapid pace. That is why we have the Professional Programme study in which we are trained for business interviews and our future careers in sessions based on aspects such as Marketing, teamwork, advertising and general presentation skills. This is part of the Diploma. I agree with you entirely that prospective employers seek the skills you have mentioned in their employees, and that is why at NCH we take care to found a number of societies, being the first year, which we can then use to further our team-working abilities, our leadership skills and our organisational capabilities. Every employer loves a pioneer.

    It is true that we do not have full access to all of UOL’s facilities. However, we have established numerous links with numerous London universities, and have made friendly agreements that we are allowed to visit their campus’ free of charge, whether it is to use their sports facilities or their bars.

    The remit of NCH was never to accept those who have been unsuccessful in their applications to Oxbridge; this is not our slogan nor is it the aim. Rather, NCH wants to provide an Oxbridge-style education (in terms of format), but one in the in the style of an American approach to liberal arts, with both breadth and depth in curriculum. Grayling’s ideas have their epicentre in giving his students more than a one-subject education.

    Finally, to address a few incorrect facts: as much as we would love it, we don’t all have double beds! Like you and your friends I am sure, some of us still live at home, others live in standard student accommodation with students from all over London. Also, it is Anthony, not Alistair Grayling.

    I do hope you take into consideration this, and see that, like you, we want to achieve our very best at university.

    Lizzie

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  3. 27 Feb ’13 at 8:45 pm

    Rohan Banerjee

    Hi Lizzie.

    Ok so I’ll apologize for the incorrect details. Honest mistake.

    I do, however, remain very sceptical. I suppose I can’t get past the fees, but that is a personal opinion.

    I think for what you pay, you aren’t getting enough out of it and I will stick by that assessment, especially as the UOL degree is available elsewhere, and the facilities are simply not enough.

    In terms of my use of “remit,” I think you have to accept this was purely stylistic and for effect……I didn’t expect you to take me seriously.

    As for “every employer loves a pioneer;” from my experience of the corporate world, I would suggest that you seriously reconsider this position.

    But thank you for your comment, it was very constructive!

    All the best.

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  4. Thanks for the article.

    Please do not confuse the extravagance of bureucrats with Libertarianism. Libertarians are leading the movement for truly low-cost and free education worldwide.

    For info on people using voluntary Libertarian tools on similar and other issues worldwide, please see the non-partisan Libertarian International Organization @ http://www.Libertarian-International.org ….

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  5. Hi Rohan,
    I have just read your article about NCH and found it interesting. I happen to know someone attending that college and got know more about the place after a couple of visits. Your article is well meaning but lacks intimate knowledge about what the college is all about. First, all students are actually taught by highly qualified tutors. By this i don’t mean what you call celebrity Profs. I am inviting you to look at these tutors’ qualifications and which Unis they went to for their Doctorates and PhDs. Most went to Oxbridge and American universities.The amount of contact hours between students and tutors is very high. I would therefore advise you to look at the substance and not superficiality for your promising writing to be taken seriously.Please avoid empty rhetoric because it will make you appear intellectually lazy and i am sure you are not. You are clearly a man of promise but you can do with more time researching before publishing any material. Is it not embarassing getting the basic facts wrong such as a person’s name? It is not a good start but i am sure you will do better next time. It is very interesting how NCH generates such reaction from other people and yet i haven’t heared them attacking other unis. Does it have to do with the fact that they are perhaps more confident and self assured? Just food for thought!
    Good luck with your exams and happy summer holidays.
    micky

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  6. Having myself once taken a diploma with the University of London international programme, I can safely say that the curriculum is very rigorous, the exams are tough, and that my experience of doing the course would have been greatly enhanced by expert tuition from good tutors (for the £1500 you quote, one receives merely a course guide and an exam date!). The fact that the NCH curriculum includes a great deal more content than a basic UoL degree only leads me to conclude that the students, should they do well, will emerge extremely well educated. In fact, at no point in your essay do you once base your argument on any kind of evidence, especially when it comes to your conclusion that this course is not worth the money. I fear, based on your willingness to build your argument on a foundation of speculation and political prejudice, that you will end up a highly successful Labour politician.

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