Because you’re worth it: the New College of the Humanities

There’s been a lot of debate over the last week about a new private undergraduate college with the power to award degrees (conferred by the University of London) for two reasons.  The ‘New College of the Humanities‘ (NCH) is roughly based on the American liberal arts college model in terms of its method and syllabus as well as the idea that it stands entirely apart from state education.  At £18,000 per annum in tuition, it certainly doesn’t come cheap.  This is supposed to be sweetened by the possibility of ‘celebrity’ tuition from the likes of philosopher AC Grayling, evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins and cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker.

This says a lot about the state of higher education in the UK.  These aren’t necessarily among the highest calibre of research academics, but they are certainly among those who have the greatest reach into popular media. I don’t remember anyone ever suggesting to me that I read Grayling’s work, but I know who he is because he is in the papers and on TV working as a philosophical talking head.  (Another way of putting this is to say that his work has impact.)

It’s easy to arrive at the impression that the creeping privatization of higher education- and, in particular, the abolition of the teaching grant for non-STEM subjects – is being used as a cover for introducing what is essentially designed to be a lucrative business venture (even though NCH is putatively not-for-profit, their salary scales are higher than state-sector universities).

It didn’t take long for the announcement to provoke a storm of criticism.  Terry Eagleton was first in, suggesting that NCH would be a kind of meta-Oxbridge which would only be available to the very rich and slightly stupid at a time when the real Oxbridge universities are doing their best to modernise.  Those opposed to the swingeing cuts in higher education seem almost to have taken an oppositional stance as soon as they heard the phrase ‘private sector’.  As Simon Jenkins writes in The Guardian, “Britain’s professors, lecturers and student trade unionists appear to be united in arms against what they most hate and fear: academic celebrity, student fees, profit and loss, one-to-one tutorials and America.”

Inevitably Facebook groups of ‘resistance’ like this one started to pop up… (from the sounds of it, they are bombarding the NCH website with fake applications)

Anti Grayling Facebook page

Grayling wants to punch education in the face... or something

Now, if there’s one thing I would say you can be fairly certain of in all this, it’s that A.C. Grayling does not hate education!  The charge might stick a little better if Grayling was obviously an ivory-tower researcher but someone with his public profile can hardly be thought to fall into this category.  As a full professor with a public profile and a stackload of credentials, Grayling’s job is safe:  he simply has no need to enrich himself in this way.  A two-minute hate gets us nowhere.

My view is that we need to bear in mind that this is a symptom rather than a cause of higher education reform.  Naturally, I’m worried about the emergence of a two-tier education system where access to learning is fundamentally a matter of ability to pay.  But with £27,000 now being the standard cost of degree tuition in the UK, I would say that we have this already.  (I myself have taught many students – often international students who pay greater fees – who didn’t seem to me to be of degree calibre and I’m sure others have too.)  We seem to have been moving towards it for as long as I can remember.

The fees certainly are eye-watering, but it’s somewhat reassuring to know that quite a significant part of it will be used to subsidize poorer students for 100% of the tuition.  These are some other things that I find encouraging about NCH (or at least aspects of it):

  • An improved student/staff ratio
  • Smaller, more collegiate institutions that foster personal relationships with students and alumni
  • (Sort-of) Interdisciplinary curricula
  • Promotion of the humanities (not sure how Dawkins fits in here)

This last one is the one that interests me the most in all of this.  The cessation of the teaching grant for non-STEM subjects represents the final denigration of the humanities as a valid form of academic research, and I would say that there has been a tendency for ‘soft’ subjects to be treated as increasingly irrelevant.  Why pay £27,000 for a humanities degree?  It won’t get you a job… but hang on, NCH is upping the ante to £54,000!

The implicit judgement seems to be that their tuition is worth so much more because they are famous.  But the perverse thing about all this is that making something exclusive and charging a lot of money for it increases demand. In my view, if it raises the cultural value of the humanities it can’t be all bad.

When I first heard about NCH my thoughts were that we were seeing the return of a classical education for the offspring of the elite.  Perhaps what we are really seeing is that some universities are being slowly turned toward fulfilling the role of the old polytechnics (churning out skilled workers) while others (i.e. Oxbridge, etc. and NCH) are to produce leaders, schooled in the classics and and to think for themselves.  Maybe Grayling et al are trying to breed a generation of atheistic world leaders.  But more likely NCH will just hoover up those who cannot get a place in a humanities department when half of them shut.

I’ve written more than I intended to, but if you’re still interested Sarah Churchwell has a good blog post on the subject and Doug Clow’s imaginatively-titled-blog has an equally well-researched piece.

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