New College of the Humanities

A new private university college is to be launched, specialising in the arts and humanities and charging tuition fees of £18,000 a year. The privately funded New College of the Humanities will be based in Bloomsbury, London and plans to admit its first undergraduates in October 2012, offering degrees validated by the University of London. The intention is that the staff will teach exactly the same syllabi as the University of London but the college will not be part of that University. 

The University of London issued a clarification about the links with NCH.

“To avoid any confusion, it should be made clear that NCH is not, and will not be, a part of the University of London.”

There is no agreement for NCH students to have access to the University of London’s Senate House library – other than the same access available to other external students and Birkbeck, University of London, stated that ‘Birkbeck has no links with New College and no agreement to provide New College with access to any of its facilities’. Although exactly who owns  teaching materials is not entirely clear the development has caused some concern among staff at the University of London about this use of materials developed within the state system.

The advice of Baroness Blackstone, vice-chancellor of the University of Greenwich and former Labour education secretary was ‘don’t go near it. There are many good universities that will continue to offer the humanities’. Terry Eagleton has called the scheme odious. There is considerable debate about the matter on many websites, including here. A campaign indicating some concerns about the project has focused on the role of Richard Dawkins (pictured).  Others have noted that the decision by A C Grayling to help form the ‘New College of the Humanities’ appears to contradict his previously expressed view that ‘

University education should be provided free of charge to all those suitably qualified for it, as a national investment that goes far beyond its benefit to the offices and factories of the land.’

There are currently five private organisations with degree-awarding powers in the UK – the University of Buckingham, the College of Law, Ashridge Business School, IFS School of Finance and BPP Ltd. The latter is the only one which is for-profit. Other privately-run colleges can teach degrees that are awarded by publicly funded universities. However, the New College for the Humanities (NCH) was launched at the weekend as an “independent university college”, with plans to charge £18,000 per year does not have university college status and does not have the right to use the title ‘university college’ according to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Although not as direct a rival to the OU as the UK subsidiary of Phoenix, BPP, the events have echoes of an earlier attempt at a private university. During the time that the OU was being created money was raised for a private university. In 1973 (the year that six hundred people became the first graduates from The Open University) a company was formed, the private University College of Buckingham was incorporated and a college opened a few miles from the OU’s headquarters. The new institution was given powers to grant degrees and the DES allowed local authorities to pay student awards.  The new college was welcomed by Tory mayor of London Boris Johnson with the words that this was’ ”such unambiguously good news that I scarcely know where to begin”. Back in the 1970s Margaret Thatcher opened what became The University of Buckingham in 1976. In common with the OU it accepted students who had not passed any A levels but there were few students at first (47 enrolled in 1975 and there were still fewer than 250 by 1978).The new college wants only students with high grades. However, it has in common with Buckingham, a system of fees.  A humanities degree will cost £54,000 plus living costs. Although it had a computer link to a bookshop in Oxford, it focused on a ‘system of personal tuition’ rather than teaching at a distance (see John Pemberton and Joyce Pemberton, The university college at Buckingham. A first account of its conception, foundation and early years, Buckingham Press, Buckingham, 1979, pp. 170, 84, 167, 183). The OU was not enamoured by the mission of the new university. One of the earliest decisions of the OU planning board was to reject the idea that OU students could transfer at the end of their foundation year to an accelerated degree at Buckingham. See G. K. Shaw and M. Blaug, The University of Buckingham after ten years – a tentative evaluation’, Higher Education Quarterly, 42, 1 Winter 1988, pp. 72-89 (p. 76).

Buckingham and this new venture appear to offer more of the same, but at a higher price. It has been described as ‘ a private university, for the products of private schools’. India Lenon has suggested a number of reasons why it might well fail. One thing which might be learned from the history of the OU is that its rapid growth and acceptability were based on its innovative approach. Its novel mix of media, distinctive structure and enthusiasm to provide a service to those previously marginalised by the higher education structures are in contrast to these elements within the private sector. It did not rely on ‘celebrity professors’ (the new college boasts seven of these) although several famous academics have worked at the OU. Rather it built its pedagogy on course teams and regionally-based academic staff.  This new venture seeks to be similar to ‘Oxbridge’. By contrast, in his inaugural speech as the Founding Chancellor Geoffrey Crowther was proud of the fact that ‘This University has no cloisters – a word meaning closed’. The history of the OU indicates the importance of striking out in new directions and leaving the cloisters and becoming, as Crowther put it ‘disembodied and airborne’.

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