The New College for the Humanities must have looked like a winner on paper. A higher education Britain’s Got Talent fronted by celebrity academics not just on the payroll, but taking a dividend. Financiers on board. Mayor BoJo’s blessing. Saudi princes by the tanker-load offering their custom. And then the project has seemingly shrivelled faster than a LibDem campaign rosette. Birkbeck swiftly distances itself from the NCH and parts company with its founder. The college’s financial, fiscal and institutional status prove foggy. It turns out that the Cannadine-Colleys are only showing up for one lecture each a year. Poor A.C. Grayling gets ambushed in Foyle’s and smoke-bombed when all he wanted to do was puff his college and shift a few copies of his rewrite of the Bible. Is nothing sacred?
The venture has excited a good deal of hostile blogorrhoea, for good reasons and bad. Of course it’s a pisser not to have been asked to join the Tellydonian stars who façade Grayling’s edifice with big bucks for little toil. Even so, none of the following comments should be taken as expressing envy, frustrated cupidity, or other unwholesome traits from which career academics are happily immune.
The problem with the NCH is not that it is ‘elite’, or that several of the big names are getting on. The problem is that it epitomises the worst features of the 2012-spec UK higher education system: it amplifies rather than damping down inequalities inherited from UK schools’ state/fee-paying apartheid, and makes ability to pay a further necessary condition beyond academic ability for admission. It also doubles students’ indebtedness and it’s not yet clear – as became plain in an interview Grayling gave this week – that NCH students will be eligible for a loan. The big-ticket professoriate will exemplify trends in the HE sector generally, where salaried faculty’s research time is bought out with low-cost teaching by casual staff.
It’ll be in Bedford Square WC1, which will whack up the rent. Projected income will be somewhere less than £18 million a year when the full complement of 1000 undergraduates are in harness (will the £18,000 be net of VAT?). If the aim is to offer significant bursaries, that sum may reduce to £14 million a year or less to cover all expenses, including rent, advertising and non-academic staff costs. Since the NCH pitch rests on low teacher-student ratios, a large number of lumpen-academical staff will be competing for a rather small pot of money. Something – the £18,000 lid on fees, the staff-student ratios or staff salaries – will have to give. Maybe the NCH will hit the jackpot by managing to get its intake on the loan book (for the full 18 grand?) and dodging the fair-access regime imposed on the state sector, while also getting the benefit of charitable status.
Here’s a different idea. Found a national humanities and social sciences college whose intake, while based on academic merit, is confined to state-school pupils, with a bias towards those from non-academic backgrounds, sought through an active outreach programme. Rather than amplifying the centripetal force of the metropolis in national life, have the institution in Leeds, say, or Birmingham, which will also cut overheads. Charge no up-front or deferred fees. Rather than dangling a fat pay cheque in front of airmiles profs flown in for a night at the Dorchester, the college would treat invitations to give guest lectures as an honour, remunerated only for expenses. Open some lectures to the general public. Build up a dynamic alumnus culture, not only by encouraging past graduates to donate, but by engaging them actively in recruitment. There’s no hope of getting funding from the state, so what about getting banks to offer a tiny proportion of their profits to meet the institution’s costs on a pro bono basis? They might even perceive in this a commercial opportunity to buff up their none-too-gleaming public image. This won’t happen. The reasons why not are no doubt complex. But, if those reasons had to be summed up in one word, one as good as any is ‘greed’.