IF: This University Is Free

Glen Newey

Three years ago I wrote a blog post hailing the New College for the Humanities as a parodically bad response to the ongoing marketisation of UK higher education, which prompted me to quit the system at that time. The NCH offers tuition at £18,000, and presumably more for its overseas intake (the college keeps its foreign students’ rates secret). That’s double the rate that was then being introduced as the sector norm in public universities, for which the jeunesse dorée get to camp in Bloomsbury, drawn by the roster of telly dons that the college had on board, at least for publicity purposes.

At the end of the post, without much hope that it would happen, I sketched an alternative to the NCH:

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... 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.

Now comes the IF: This University Is Free project. I haven’t been involved in it, but have offered free teaching, and urge others who are in a position to do so to follow suit. IF aims to set up free humanities courses in London using the capital’s free cultural assets. They’re asking for kickstarter funding, initially for a summer school which will also serve as a pilot for a larger-scale operation to be launched later this year.

I know the case against. A one-off third-sector initiative is no real substitute for a properly funded state higher education sector. Sure. But it is not trying to be and the fact that the better-than-nothing is not ideal is no reason to let it be vanquished by the undeniably crap.

IF needs to raise £10,000 – just over half of one UK student’s annual fees at the NCH – by Tuesday 25 March to meet their kickstarter target. At the time of writing they’re about £2700 short and under kickstarter rules don’t get a bean if they fail to hit their target. So if you have some spare change or can shake down someone for a donation, please do.

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  • 18 March 2014 at 6:09pm
    Paul Myerscough says:
    Andrew McGettigan offers a different perspective on IF here:

  • 18 March 2014 at 10:27pm
    Glen Newey says:
    And a pretty daft one it is. Generally I find that Thatcher's 'chattering classes' gibe is always liable to explode in the hands of leftists, and coming from someone who runs a personal blog it's particularly asinine - but that irony is probably lost on McGettigan. I can't see anything on the Kickstarter homepage that announces it's 'a website intended for start-up ventures', as he says, the implication apparently being that the IF people might be hoping to make a quick buck. I assume that it's not for profit, and so asking 'how profits will move round and out of the company' is a hunt for the snark. Maybe I'm wrong; I'll find out when I talk to the IF people in London next week. It isn't, as McGettigan says, a MOOC, at least to go by the IF website, which he's happy to use when being snarky about whether it's a social enterprise. It's aiming as far as I can see to broaden access to university level education for those who can't stump up 9 grand a year for the privilege. If the point is – he flails around comparing IF first to the NCH, then to Alain de Botton – that this isn't much good compared with properly funded state higher education, I don't know who he's arguing with; not me, for reasons I indicated in the post. Hopefully state investment in HE will return, though not much is to be hoped for given mainstream parties' current policies. In the meantime there is the question of what you can do to improve access to it for people. It's nice for McGettigan - laboriously flagged up as 'Dr. Andrew McGettigan' on a Facebook page he's set up to puff a talk he's giving in Bath next week - that he's already had the benefit of a university education. Not everybody is so lucky.

  • 19 March 2014 at 12:12pm
    Andrew McGettigan says:
    My main point is simple. It hasn't incorporated or associated formally - it's two individuals fundraising so no one who doesn't know them personally is in a position to make an informed position. Social enterprises needn't be not-for-profit. And you can see that I have received different answers - first that they were seeking charitable status; later that they are taking legal advice on the matter.

    The Mooc/ online resources references are rife on the main website

    There's plenty else that can be done around these issues.