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Jun 06 2011

The New College of the Humanities

AC Grayling is fronting the formation of a new private institution, The New College of the Humanities (NCH) providing degree level education, based in London and charging £18k per year. The degrees will be awarded by the University of London, under an existing scheme, the University of London International Programmes, the NCH simply being a new supplier.

The New College of Humanities is heading for the prestige market with its headline fees of £18k per year, a list of celebrity professors, a Bloomsbury location and a staff to student ratio of 1:10. It’s clear from the supporting material that the celebrity professors will not be providing all of the teaching. The novelty here is that the NCH will be a private institution. The University of Buckingham has been plugging away quietly for the last 30 years or so as the UK’s only private university, it is now getting increasing company. Buckingham has achieved very good student approval ratings, and has been innovative in the way it delivers degrees, managing to offer degree courses at around £18k, so it’s going for a different unique selling point.

Returning to the NCH: as usual for stories involving universities in the UK, a comparison to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge must be made by commentators in the press (here and here, for example). These should be ignored as fatuous and ill-conceived – there’s much more to universities in the UK than Oxford and Cambridge.

I’ve been rather bemused by the reaction to NCH on twitter by the people I follow, they generally have the character of “How dare a private university be created”. This is bizarre to me, the thesis that some big names should endow an institution with prestige is wobbly, however opposing the idea that people should be free to decide how to spend their money on how they attain their degree seems to me rather illiberal. To cover some of the points thrown around:

  1. It’s not a research university. Much is made of the research / teaching link, in my experience Russell Group universities recruit lecturers on the basis of research potential (or achievement) rather than any teaching ability or teaching qualification. Having done both I can’t help thinking that if I’d spent more time learning and doing teaching I’d be better at teaching.
  2. It’ll be like Jamie’s University, a reference to Jamie’s School where celebrities were sent to teach some of our more difficult pupils with hilarious consequences. In a way we already operate this system when we recruit our top-flight researchers to teach.
  3. The professoriate are not ethnically or gender diverse. Well neither are our current institutions!
  4. It teaches to the University of London syllabus, which is unsurprising since that who’s awarding the degree!
  5. It’s narrowly parasitic, in the sense that it is taking advantage of the University of London’s “public” facilities for free. This is contradicted by statements by both the University of London and the NCH, it will pay for facilities it uses.
  6. It’s broadly parasitic. This seems to be based on the idea that people trained with public money should only serve public institutions. Not sure where this puts people trained abroad, coming to the UK, or even worse those trained here and emigrating or myself – trained by public funds and working in a private company. It does sound like indentured slavery to me. I don’t buy the idea that the UK is short of people capable of teaching at degree level.
  7. They professoriate are doing it for money. Take a look at professorial salaries in the current institutions – £80k a year is not at all bad, they’re already doing it for money.
  8. It only teaches humanities, no science. My experience is that outside the Oxbridge college system the intermingling of disciplines in universities is poor, particularly across the great divide.
  9. A GP in the neighbourhood offers complementary medicine.
  10. It’s straightforward evil because private money is involved.

There is still a “to do” list for NCH:

  • they need to finalise their relationship with University of London;
  • they need to fill a large part of the teaching roster;
  • they need to demonstrate the £18k per year price point will attract sufficient students to be economically viable;

I also see it having little wider significance to the teaching of humanities in the UK.

I must admit I quite like the idea of teaching degree level science to students at a 1:10 staff to student ratio without having to worry about all that grant application stuff – when do we get the New College of Science?

In summary, the NCH is a novel proposition based on a premise whose value is to be established – it’s ultimately about how other people wish to spend their money and, in the absence of any obvious harm to others, they should be left to get on with it. We should be welcoming new ideas in providing degree level education: like this initiative, the Open University and the University of Buckingham, not trying to put them down at birth.

Footnotes
Some background on Cambridge Colleges, teaching and tuition fees by me.

8 comments

  1. Katrina

    I agree with all you've said here. I was gobsmacked by the speed with which my twitter feed filled up with angry posts from people foaming at the mouth about this new enterprise.
    I am interested to see how it works out, and I applaud anyone who is willing to try out different models of higher education in the UK.

  2. SomeBeans

    Yes, I was a bit surprised quite how quickly people took against it.

  3. Sarah Ebner

    Good piece and analysis, thanks. I find it all quite fascinating and have some sympathy too (and also feel that many attacking NCH are really attacking the introduction of higher tuition fees, which is not actually New College's fault). I've written about it myself too (though there is a paywall…) and NCH have answered 10 of my questions too. http://bit.ly/nchgoodorbad and http://bit.ly/NCHQANDA

  4. Alix

    Thanks for writing this – quite a lot more fact-based than most of the mainstream media stuff I've read.

    I tend (as a separate issue, I hope) to agree with most of your points. I do take issue with the Oxbridge comparisons being necessarily fatuous though. It's pretty clear that the Oxbridge tutorial system is what these august profs have in mind when they big up the importance of one-to-one tutorial teaching. I think they're right about this, so the reference point is not unfavourable.

    Though I agree that in practice some commentators are using it as a jumping off point for an argument that goes "It's like Oxbridge! Nasty! Boo!"

  5. SomeBeans

    @SarahEbner – unfortunately I'm the wrong side of the paywall! I think the attack is on the opportunity being offered to the very wealthy for a celebrity-academic based education.

    @Alix – the introduction of the Oxbridge comparison on all conceivable occasions is a bit of a hobby horse for me ;-) The Oxbridge tutoring model as implemented for sciences (typically 1 to 3 rather than 1 to 1) is very similar to that I've experienced at Bristol as and undergrad and at UMIST as a lecturer.

    The distinguishing features of Oxbridge, to my mind, are the college system with the majority of small group teaching based in the college communities which are much stronger (and wealthier) than their equivalents elsewhere. And the wine cellars.

  6. Nico

    Hello Ian,
    I was expecting that the NCH announcement would create a strong debate, but not the furore that ensued. Personally, I do not like the idea that rich people can jump the queue to quality education only by the virtue of being rich.
    However, the reaction has been excessive in some cases (smoke bomb?). My concern is more that this reinforces the idea that if you're rich, you get access to whatever you want/need: politicians (donations), jobs (internships), media (advertisement) and now education, independently of need or democratic oversight. It was ever thus of course, but this development makes it worse in my opinion. It is the UK moving towards a US system, and as a good Continental I tend to resist that. Reform the system to be more efficient, get ideas from other places, why not, but copy what comes from US just because it's from there doesn't make sense to me.
    The celebrity side of it I find disturbing also, as has been mentioned elsewhere you can hire J-Lo to sing at your birthday party if you have the wonga, but that won't make you a good singer.

  7. SomeBeans

    @Nico – you don't get everyone a better car by banning people from buying Mercedes.

    A large fraction of academia seems to be arguing that NCH *won't* be offering a quality education.

    I'm interested by the idea that you can extract £9k pa over the odds from the wealthy for a few celebrity lectures. But go have a look at the overseas fees our universities are already charging.

    I wish academia would make like they were looking for solutions, rather than simply bemoaning the lack of cash and all setting maximum fees. U of Buck has some interesting ideas in this area and it's a pity they're the only example in the UK I can cite.

  8. Anonymous

    This post is superficial and a complete misunderstanding of the issue. A total distraction from the real (and important) debate. The fury – at least from thoughtful commentators – has nothing to do with the NCH itself. It's not about "how other people wish to spend their money". That particular phrasing is a crass attempt to simplify what is an immensely complex issue with much broader implications.

    This is about meritocracy and liberal egalitarianism being thwarted by aristocracy – the NCH is merely a step (albeit a significant and rather public one) in the latter direction. And this looming aristocracy is so crudely and dangerously defended under the guise of libertarianism and pragmatism (and you unproblematically accept these arguments in your blog post without fully engaging with their complexity).

    Meritocracy and aristocracy are ideal types that are never fully manifest. They do, however, exist along a continuum and are mutually exclusive in principle. Any decision to support new, unaccessible institutions indicates that one is comfortable moving towards the latter end of the continuum at the expense of the former. It is contributing to the commodification of university education, rather than taking steps to protest or limit this commodification.

    Take, for instance, a comparison with healthcare. If Dr Oz decided to open a private hospital in London, which would charge exorbitant fees to 75% of those who requested surgery (allowing only 6% to receive free treatment, the others vague 'subsidies'), what kind of healthcare culture would that create? It would be a step towards privilege for the wealthy, possibly undermining the entire idea of equal healthcare in Britain if it catches on. This is, of course, not a strict analogy, but it does bear out the concern.

    That is the issue, which you fail (knowingly or not) to sufficiently address in your post.

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