Commentary on New College of the Humanities

Something of a rocky debut for the New College of the Humanities (NCH @NewCollegeH), then – it seems that my instant reaction was mild by comparison to many others.

I’ve some points of accuracy to make, in an attempt to clear up a few things. And then I’d like to quote one commentator in particular at some length, because the quotes sum up much of my own view.

Mr. Grumpy Potato
This photo, (CC) BY-SA banger1977 on Flickr, is intended to illustrate a relevant facial expression in a lighthearted way and must not be interpreted as a suggestion that any of the people involved resemble a potato in any other way.

Points of accuracy

First, a few quick points of accuracy, which much of the press coverage has got at least somewhat muddled, which in turn thwarts the Wikipedia article.

As an aside, its development over the week was a classic example of academics struggling to engage with Wikipedia. The article was semi-protected for edit warring when people who had very solid information – but no Wikipedia-quality secondary sources – tried to update it to reflect that, and were firmly reverted for posting original research. Writing Wikipedia is not like other academic writing, including teaching material (and blogs!).

You can probably infer much of what I’ve written below from the Wikipedia article at present, but it’s not explicitly set out in the article, because this synthesis hasn’t appeared in the newspapers. I’m shocked, shocked to discover that the accounts presented in the mainstream media are not perfectly in accord with the situation as I understand it.

The structure

Essentially, NCH is a private outfit aiming to tutor students on the long-established University of London International Programmes (ULIP, previously the External Programme). ULIP allows anyone to register for a degree, with no entry requirements. You get some self-study materials, and then sit the exams. You then – if you pass! – get a University of London degree. The curriculum, materials and examinations are developed by various University of London member institutions (Goldsmiths, Royal Holloway, etc), who almost invariably save effort by using their own courses. You don’t get (or pay for) any tuition from the University of London (or its member institutions) on this programme, but there are many private providers around the world who will teach you for a fee. ULIP even quality-approves some of them. This explains why the curricula for, say, History at Royal Holloway, and English Literature at Goldsmiths, are the same as those at NCH: Royal Holloway and Goldsmiths are the lead college within the University of London for those courses.

I understand, but am not sure, that at least some courses – notably Law and Economics – are not completely open-entry, but require you to be signed up with an approved provider. NCH is not an approved provider, and I might hazard a guess that they may have more trouble than other outfits in becoming one – somewhat unfairly, I think.

NCH does offer extra bits on top of plain-vanilla ULIP: the star academic lectures, critical thinking, science literacy, applied ethics, and professional skills. These are nothing to do with the University of London, and will not be part of the degree students will get. The college website implies that you must satisfy them on these extras before you can take the final exams, and that it will issue its own diploma to cover them.

The status and name

It is definitely not a university; it is not a university college. The titles ‘university’ and ‘university college’ require Privy Council/BIS approval, which has not (yet!) been applied for, let alone granted. They appear to have had legal advice that they may describe themselves as a university college, just not use it in the title – so, for instance, they might try their luck with “New College of the Humanities is a university college”, although I note that the home page as of 11 June has merely ” is a new concept in university-level education”. Which is legally unproblematic, but I’m not sure that it’s entirely true, depending on your criteria for “new”.

It’s not a charity. It is a for-profit company, New College of the Humanities Limited (company number 07317195). There is also a charity, New College of the Humanities Trust (registered charity number 1141608), but its main purpose in life is to dish out scholarships, exhibitions, bursaries and maintenance allowance to students at NCH. I suspect that this arrangement is for tax reasons. I imagine it’ll work like this: students all pay full whack to NCH Ltd (nominally at least), which will make a tax-efficient donation to NCH Trust, which will then pay the money out to students eligible for financial support.

I was wrong

I said in my last post that the original name of the company, Grayling Hall Limited, “suggests that AC Grayling had a rather less modest initial proposal for the name of the institution”. This is not the case. The company was officially set up by AC Grayling and Peter Hall, which offers a perfectly ordinary rationale for the company name. It’s not impossible (and wouldn’t be remotely unusual) that they set up a company between them for some other purpose, and renamed it later to serve as the company for this venture.

Points of view

Having addressed some points of accuracy, I turn now to some opinion.

As the story has developed, I’ve been very struck by insightful remarks made by one commentator in particular. They’ve given the matter some thought, and while I don’t agree with all of their position by any means, a few selective quotes do rather pithily point up my own concerns.

On the overwhelmingly negative reception given to the venture:

“[This issue] has become this sort of lightning conductor for the whole dissatisfaction that everybody feels about what’s happening in higher education” [1]

Comparisons with Oxbridge are off the mark:

“claiming to be able to rival Oxford and Cambridge and so on. And this is just nonsense” [1]

On admissions policy – remembering my concerns about how hard it is to get a needs-blind admissions processes right – I’m worried that the pressures on them will tempt them to depart from a rigorous and fair admissions procedure, and this commentator observed that the college is not fixated on grades, and is even prepared to admit people:

“If we like the cut of someone’s jib” [2]

On the likely result of the involvement of private investment in HE – remembering my concerns about the governance structure (one single academic on the Board):

“[N]obody wants to be owned by people who have got other ideas. […] Everybody is quite right about the thought of bringing private money into higher education. All the precedents are very poor. When you look in the past, the profit motive has always trumped the education ambition and has always made a mess of it. And so the precedents are terrible” [1]

And on the likely returns to the academics:

“This is not going to make a lot of people go and live in the Bahamas and be rich” [3]

Fundamentally, the main concern is the potential effect of private efforts like this on the rest of the sector:

“We’ve really got to keep the public universities. We’ve got to fight to get them back and funding back into them; they’ve got to survive.” [1]

So who is this perspicacious and somewhat critical commentator I have quoted so extensively?

Professor AC Grayling, Master of New College of the Humanities.

(I note that I concluded my previous post with a selective quote from him, too.)

References

[1] The Guardian, AC Grayling complains of abuse over creation of elite New College, 9 June 2011

[2] New College of Humanities promotional video, according to Times Higher Education, “Leader: Anthony’s Dream School“, 9 June 2011 [This is widely attested, but I couldn’t find such a video on the college’s site as of 11 June 2011]

[3] Times Higher Education, “Grayling’s plans for tutorials with the stars receives poor notices from disgruntled critics“, 9 June 2011, p7

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Author: dougclow

Academic in the Institute of Educational Technology, the Open University, UK. Interested in technology-enhanced learning and learning analytics.

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