Epitomising the Worst

Glen Newey · The New College for the Humanities

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’.


  • 8 June 2011 at 6:51pm
    BillCooke says:
    Plus 2.5x multiplier for highest and lowest paid permanent academic staff. No HR, quality assurance, or international offices. Maximum of 40 students in any one class, and on any one degree programme per year. Student feedback actively sought, but not anonymized, and not part of the national student survey. Strong work ethic for students and staff, cooperative but not "group assignments".

    Where do I sign ?

  • 8 June 2011 at 6:52pm
    aisia says:
    Hmm. I don't know about all state school, it would seem like an encouragement of apartheid. How about a strong, clear quota system, 30 private, or somewhere there about? You can then set the outreach students alongside the best private school applicants, from backgrounds as academic as you like, come on the understanding that they will be in a minority and it will be a place of learning rather than a middle class finish school.

  • 8 June 2011 at 6:54pm
    aisia says:
    My quota has disappeared. I suggested 35% max. private, 30% min. outreach.

  • 8 June 2011 at 7:06pm
    BillCooke says:
    Hmmm. The private school wealthy as victims of apartheid ? Over a third from fee paying schools ?

    Where do I resign ?

    • 9 June 2011 at 2:40pm
      aisia says: @ BillCooke
      Er,everyone is the victim of an apartheid, but particularly those who started out with least - that is, the state school students. Too vigorously promote institutions like these, and you hand Oxbridge back over to the private schools and the untroubled perpetuation of privilege.
      Fiddle with the numbers as much as you want - 20, 15, 10 - but the truth is we really aren't all that bad.

  • 9 June 2011 at 9:58am
    willharwood says:
    I liked this from Deborah Orr this morning:

    "What, exactly, do people fear from this new private establishment? The University of Buckingham has operated since the 1970s, and has not yet ousted Oxbridge. There's no great likelihood that Grayling's institution will have massive significance either. People from rich families will be offered further choice in their higher-education, in a small adjustment to already choice-laden lives. Big deal. At least they'll be spending their money on something worthwhile, that could even, just possibly, improve their understanding of the world."

    • 9 June 2011 at 11:20pm
      alex says: @ willharwood
      This one isn't exactly hard to answer. The basic reason for being against it is that it's got no quality. I have a product which is not only cheaper but better.
      By spending money on this enterprise rich people won't be improving their understanding of the world in the slightest. More likely they'll be improving their misunderstanding of it.

  • 9 June 2011 at 11:23am
    BillCooke says:
    Or, thinking more, make it a one years Masters only school, prioritizing those who have entered university, whichever, with "poor" A levels, and come out with firsts; and those state educated likewise.

    It makes the outreach easier, for a smaller more compact core institution, and greater distinctiveness, with more chance of operating in the way Glen Newey suggests.

    This sounds crass, but a kind of MBA for the social science and humanities, in the sense of giving its holders a certain kind of social/intellectual/career cachet.

  • 9 June 2011 at 11:24am
    BillCooke says:
    Not, I should add, an MBA in any sense of being an education in business.

  • 9 June 2011 at 3:26pm
    Paul Taylor says:
    I guess it's unsurprising that top academics believe that what makes a university great is having lots of top academics, but really will many bright and privileged 18-year-olds want to go to a university that has no buildings, no campus, no bar, no union, no sports teams, no identity beyond a website and some press releases, no reputation, that can only offer eight degrees - all designed and examined by another institution - and where they can expect to meet only a few dozen fellow students?

  • 9 June 2011 at 7:16pm
    Justin Gregson says:
    Alright, I'll say it. Don't real universities do science too?

  • 10 June 2011 at 2:43pm
    outofdate says:
    All it is is a rent-a-name college, like the CPE at City University, which pays Camford academics so much for so many lectures, or any number of American universities that throw money at people like John Sutherland in the summer holidays to intone their platitudes there. It's not the thin end of the wedge. You do not have to study there. It takes nothing away from anybody. It's nothing. Relax.

  • 10 June 2011 at 5:50pm
    Molly says:
    I would like to clear up a misconception. The British press keeps referring to the New College for the Humanities as "American-style" education. As a professor at a private U.S. university (Princeton) I can tell you that one aspect of the NCH is very much not how most private universities are run here. I do not have an "equity stake" in my university, nor does any other professor I know. We are all salaried employees, full-stop. Those types of institutions are known here as "for-profit" universities, which are very different from private universities, which are set up as non-profits. For-profit universities, such as the famous (or infamous) University of Phoenix are actually banned in New Jersey.

  • 10 June 2011 at 9:34pm
    alex says:
    "It's nothing. Relax", writes outofdate. In one sense he's right. We wouldn't be so agitated about overpriced and overpromoted designer clothing or food. But there's a lot of confusion about the status and ethics of this place, only some of which stems from Brits' unfamiliarity with this kind of institution at higher level. (interesting how many US correspondents like Molly have written in pointing out how this is no liberal arts college).
    One of Grayling's media defenders has written: "If in fact it is for profit, or in practice it admits only the rich and squeezes out the poor, it will fully deserve condemnation".
    She might have checked the place out in slightly more detail before writing that (& turns out she has a finger in the pie too).

  • 12 June 2011 at 1:54pm
    alex says:
    A statement by the Principal of Royal Holloway College:

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