New College of the Humanities

Well, it certainly is interesting times in UK Higher Education provision.

Today’s news is the emergence of a New College of the Humanities, with a professoriate of (15) academic stars, led by Professor AC Grayling, who will become its first Master when it opens to students in 2012:

A new British college aiming to rival Oxford and Cambridge has been launched by leading academics. [BBC]

They are aiming high – with fees of £18,000 a year, three times the ‘normal’ rate of £6,000. They are, of course, a private, for-profit company, with significant investment behind them. The inspiration is unabashedly from US elite liberal arts institutions. It’s going to be small and selective: they’re looking for three As at A level … and people who can spare £54k plus living expenses.

This appears to be yet another instalment of less than perfect policy coherence in UK academia. Hot on the heels of the Prime Minister very publicly blocking the Minister’s floating of the possibility of paying for ‘off quota’ places … a new venture emerges where you can do just that.  So you can’t buy a place at university … unless you’re able to pay twice the maximum cap on fee loans. I can’t see how this can possibly do anything other than reduce social mobility.

Sorry... Got to go now!

It’s a risky venture. Any new university is a bit of a leap of faith. And I expect this one will attract widespread hostility and snarking from academics. (We academics do good snark.) It will be very hard for them to avoid the perception that they are providing for the rich-but-dim: Why would you, as a prospective student, study at New College of the Humanities, if you were capable of getting in to Oxford or Cambridge? You’d save yourself £27k to boot.

One reason might be that you are attracted by the individual stars in the Professoriate. It is an all-star list. I can imagine a budding biologist would be excited at the prospect of direct teaching from Richard Dawkins, Steve Jones, and Steven Pinker … except the college is humanities-only.

Why would you go? My esteemed colleague, John Naughton (a genuine academic star) pointed me at an interesting article in the New Yorker by Louis Menand, which explores different conceptions of the purpose of a university, including the idea that it functions as a credential, a social signal of accomplishments, a theme expanded on by Robin Hanson (thanks Paul Crowley for pointing me at that one). Oxford and Cambridge function in this way. Attending this new institution will send a signal, but it will be a different one to that sent by attending Oxbridge.

As I’ve observed, now is an excellent time to set up a new private university: strong Government backing, gaping holes in existing provision, and a landscape designed explicitly to support it. And, of course, a recession is famously a good time to start a business (no really, it is – counter-intuitive as that may seem). And there is indeed a gap in provision at the top, just where they’re aiming. There exist many people who wish to have an excellent university education who are prepared to pay far more for it than the £9k fee cap. There’s no shortage of wealth at the top of the income distribution – indeed, top salaries have been shooting up, even as most others stand still or shrink in real terms. Maybe back in the 15th century, when the modern conception of Humanities as a subject to study emerged through the Renaissance, the only way to embed such noble values in society was to charge the wealthy handsomely for the privilege of learning them. But I really don’t think that applies now.

To be fair, the college are offering financial assistance for ‘at least 20%’ of their first intake (of, I think, 200). I do hope they have done their homework about how to do needs-blind admission properly. This is very hard to get right, and they need top-quality advice. Those numbers, of course, also tell you a key fact about the college: it is small. No doubt they plan to grow, but I doubt they’ll ever be much larger than, say, a typical Oxbridge College. Which is to say, negligible in terms of addressing the shortfall of places in the sector, let alone the total number of prospective students. As is all other private provision in the UK HE sector to date.

The Professoriate and Board are a bit white and male, but so is the whole sector, and they seemed duly embarrassed about it on Twitter (@NewCollegeH), so that’s alright (!). Not sure it’ll be the most rewarding teaching for those academics either – direct teaching of the brightest and best is great.  But these students, I would expect, will excel over their Oxbridge peers mainly in the depth of their pockets, rather than their intellect.

If someone’s going to get rich out of the marketisiation of HE, I’d rather it was star academics than financiers. Except, of course, the ‘stars’ in this venture are actually the hired help, not the owners. So I suspect if there are megabucks made here it won’t be the academics getting them.

It’s unequivocally a business enterprise, rather than an academic one: there is no Senate here as supreme body. It’s a company, with a Board of Directors, of whom only the Master of the College is an academic. There’s a Chair of the Board and a Chief Executive Officer, and non-execs, as you’d expect for a company. It’s not clear what authority the Master has – if any – over the Chair and CEO.

Cunningly – at least, in terms of setting up a business quickly – it isn’t a university, and doesn’t need to be, since they are using the University of London for accreditation. (The system is already disaggregated more than one might think!)

The role of research is also not clear. The College says “They [the Professors] and the other teaching staff are active in research”, which is true – indeed they are all distinguished researchers, or have been. But I’d expect a bit more about the research excellence angle if it was planned that the academic staff would lead world-class research through their appointment at the college. Now, it’s entirely possible to have good university-level teaching by non-research-active staff. However, I personally believe that if you are after the very top-class of university, you need research and teaching excellence together. (I do not believe, though, that individuals who are excellent researchers are ipso facto excellent teachers, any more than I would the converse.)  Whether I’m right or not about the necessity of the research-teaching link for excellence, many people believe it exists. This is, shall we say, another area of perceptual challenge for the College.

The name – New College of the Humanities – is clearly an appeal to the long tradition of calling things New in the hope that it may some day become ancient – like the New Forest, say, or indeed New College, Oxford, which was indeed New when it was founded in 1379. (I’d imagine New College, Oxford  are doubtless seething about potential confusion, and may even consult m’learned friends.) The name also appears rather Google-unfriendly (it’s not remotely Google-unique, as I would advise any new enterprise to be) – although as we now take entirely for granted, Google has improved its search results during the day as the news grows, so the top hits for the name are (almost) all now relevant – although the College’s own home page still doesn’t show up for me just now.

I note for the record that, according to both the College’s terms and conditions and Companies House, New College of the Humanities Limited (company number 07317195) has its registered office at  15 Glengall Road, London SE15 6NJ, which is in Peckham, rather than Bloomsbury (it’s entirely normal for a company’s registered office to be somewhere other than its operating premises). Companies House confirms this, and also says that the company was incorporated on 16/7/2010, and changed its name from Grayling Hall Limited on 23/2/2011 – which suggests that AC Grayling had a rather less modest initial proposal for the name of the institution. [Later update: This suggestion was wrong. It was AC Grayling and Peter Hall – see ‘I was wrong’ in my followup post.]

According to the news reports, Prof Grayling, the prospective new Master, said:

Either you stand on the sidelines deploring what is happening or you jump in and do something about it.

I entirely agree that something has to be done. And this is undeniably something. But – as I would hope even prospective students would know – one cannot therefore validly deduce that this has to be done.

I really don’t think this something is going to make things better. Except, perhaps, for some people who are already doing pretty well for themselves (wealthy would-be students, and the shareholders and executives). Unlike some of my colleagues, I can imagine a positive role for the private sector in helping to solve the problems of UK higher education … but this is not helping.

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Author: dougclow

Data scientist, tutxor, project leader, researcher, analyst, teacher, developer, educational technologist, online learning expert, and manager. I particularly enjoy rapidly appraising new-to-me contexts, and mediating between highly technical specialisms and others, from ordinary users to senior management. After 20 years at the OU as an academic, I am now a self-employed consultant, building on my skills and experience in working with people, technology, data science, and artificial intelligence, in a wide range of contexts and industries.

6 thoughts on “New College of the Humanities”

    1. That’s interesting, thanks for the link. Dawkins’ comment really does clarify the role of the professoriate in the venture.

  1. A clarification: the college Twitter account confirms that as I suspected, the college is not offering its own degrees, but is preparing students for exams set through University of London International Programmes, previously known as the External Programme.

    This means the curriculum – or at least, the curriculum that is assessed for the final degree – is set by other institutions, not the college. It also explains why the curricula for, say, History at Royal Holloway, and English Literature at Goldsmiths, are the same as those at the new college: Royal Holloway and Goldsmiths are the lead college within UoL for those courses.

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