On the announcement of the ‘New College of Humanities’

As many of you will have come to know of late, there has been an announcement of a private college set up by a number of private sector figures to institute a ‘New College of the Humanities’ (NCH), with A.C. Grayling as the master of the college. Certain facts about this announcement have brought much controversy, which include:

  • The college proposes to charge £18,000 a year for undergraduate courses, as a private college they are not obliged to follow the tuition fee cap of £9,000, the controversy of which (inter alia) has brought about this very college
  • The college promises ‘big’ names to join, such as Richard Dawkins, A.C. Grayling and Stephen Pinker, all of which are famous public intellectuals.
  • It has also emerged that this ploy of attracting big names to the staff has been slightly misleading in that they are apparently contractually obliged to only 1 lecture a year, many of whom still will hold faculty positions
  • The modus operandi of the college is poised as an ideological statement of criticism to the current and increasingly unstable higher education system in the US
  • The NCH proposes to be more like a US-style system of university college, where private sector investment can cover for bursaries for those of lesser financial means

There have been a great many criticisms of this announcement, naturally. Some range from the obvious (well, obvious to me) to the unusual, and some criticism are outright weird. In a sense, many critics have raised the mast and shown their own colours in their criticisms. Terry Eagleton has been accused for instance, as instantiating the usual critical theory capitalism conspiracy babble against the college, although personally I’ve found it perhaps the only time I’ve actually (at least initially) agreed with his work, despite the difficult language used.

One observation that is particularly interesting is the suggestion that US academics percieve this announcement more favourably than the UK. Brian Leiter’s support of NCH on his ‘Reports blog comes to me as a surprise against the overwhelming UK academic opinion against it. Many criticisms focus on the issues which I would agree as very important worries: this college does nothing for social mobility, which public universities (including even Cambridge/Oxford) vastly help with. This college is a step backwards to an age of financial and social priviledge where old boy networks are unashamedly celebrated. I can only hope that Grayling was reading ‘A Theory of Justice’ by J. Rawls before he made his difficult decision.

Some of the criticisms however, I find interesting, and unfamiliar. One criticism is that NCH isn’t private enough. A private college does not rent University of London resources and is thus parasitic on the public university. One article raised yesterday which was tangentially very interesting was that UL students have to pay to use the Senate House Library, which sounds absurd to me, considering how much fees cost, as well as the necessity it is to use a library for graduate and undergraduate study! Another specific allegation is that NCH borrows course syllabi from the UL collegiate programme. This is a pretty serious allegation considering the certain uniqueness of some courses. For a college that promises a more individually tailored student experience, using borrowed material to teach gives a certain personless anonymity to the feel of an individualist experience. Another very strange criticism is that the NCH steals the title of ‘New College’, from New College (St. Marys), Oxford, which itself is a few hundred years old. I’ll leave that up to the Oxonians to hold that torch of critique..

I think to some extent it is important to employ the principle of charity to Grayling’s College. I personally felt utterly betrayed by the notion, that was my honest first response to this announcement. That a philosopher in such high regard from his popular set of books, as well as his non-philosophical work on China, and the secular movement would commit to such a contraversial action does give me less hope for the HE establishment. That said, if I do take the principle of Charity, perhaps this move Grayling made is some incredibly clever Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias -like gesture which unites all the critics and academic establishment figures to really shake up and change their ways. Or perhaps as some sympathisers say, this project may not really have a negative effect on the HE establishment as there will only be about 100 or so graduates a year from the NCH, or it may lead to a new way of thinking about the university. It is also fair to say that in uniting such disparate groups by the announcement of the college, many people who would be putatively enemies have united against it (from Terry Eagleton, to academics in proper subjects), it would be too easy to join the bandwagon for poorly thought out reasons (see ‘New College, Oxford’ plagiarism allegation).

News like this distracts me, and this blog from what I really want to write about. In a sense, news like this is also a distraction from what should be understood as the ‘real’ underlying problem of the changing nature of government agencies (which in this instance includes Higher Education). Many of the academics who have made a name in recent publications for taking a stand against the changes in Higher Education are not really interested in being campaigning types, many just want to get on with their research. The climate is changing too much and it does look to be a war of ideologies, what is valued in society and governance? The oppurtunity for those of ability to reach as far as they can in whatever industry or endeavour they intend to solely on the basis of their talent and ability? Or a generation of Tim-nice-but-dims reaching the top of the social ladder from the bank of Mum and Dad and their connections? Of course things are a lot more nuanced than this, and the reality is a mix of the two, but this current political and social climate is very conducive for extremes to emerge from the nuance.

What is forgotten is that the changes instituted by government and university administrators come from a generation of British people who enjoyed an age of free education. Were it not for the advantages that the university system of yesteryear gave them, would they have been in the same positions of power today? In this sense their decisions form a betrayal of conscience.

I thought this news story is particularly poignant. As someone who is a graduate from the late 2000s, as someone currently struggling in this economic climate, this announcement makes me feel exceptionally lucky that I at least ended up with a couple of degrees. I probably wouldn’t survive the high selection criteria of today’s university admission bodies, and the fees would have definitely put my parents off encouraging me to go to university as well. This story has been in the back of my mind this week, as I’ve been in talks with getting involved in a social media project distinctly related to this issue…perhaps more on that as things emerge.


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