New College disaster and the challenge of A.C. Grayling

In a bold new initiative, philosopher-proprietor A.C. Grayling has launched a for-profit university amidst a storm of opposition. Could it be that the prospectus is misleading, and the venture undemocratic and wrong in principle?

In December we published a forensic, far-sighted post: Britain, greet the age of privatised Higher Education, by Alan Finlayson. Six months later and a funding consortium led by the prolific philosopher Anthony Grayling beats the US-based Global Apollo to the draw. On Sunday he announced the launch of the New College of the Humanities, a for-profit university independent of the state, which will utilise the services of the University of London and charge £18,000 a year fees. A storm of often hilarious protests has greeted what looks set to be a disastrous initiative. The saga can be followed on the regularly updated Wikipedia page. Opposition is being organised on Facebook with lots of links, and on Twitter (#NCH) and on Campaign for the Humanities, while Crooked Timber provided a fast, initial dissection of the financial structure now set out by Andrew McGettigan. In the Guardian Terry Eagleton was so beside himself he even attacks "Grayling and his friends" for planning to "rake off money from the rich", who really are in dire straits if they need Eagleton as their protector.

Perhaps they do if they read Boris Johnson who took time off from being Mayor of London to express his "joy" at Grayling having put together what he termed a "Reject’s College, Oxbridge". It's something he has longed for, "a new elite academic institution, aimed squarely at the wrathful parents – many of them Oxbridge graduates – who simply could not understand how their own offspring could rack up three A-stars and grade 8 bassoon, and yet find themselves turned down".

The underlying issues raised by the initiative matter. Are its opponents right to see it as an attack on open, public higher education by financing a privileged two-tier system that will then reinforce sharply growing inequality? Or is it, as Grayling says, merely a much needed additional resource for humanities teaching in the UK? He says it is his way of opposing what the government is doing to higher education, not to please it in the way he has delighted Mayor Johnson. Is he right?

I'm afraid that he isn't. My conclusions are that NCH is misleading, wrong in principle and undemocratic.

The way the New College presents itself on its website and to the media is misleading. To run a would-be university on a for-profit basis is wrong in principle. But even if you wanted to test this claim to see if you could run a for-profit university with scholarly integrity, the timing is woeful as the government seeks to marketise the whole of higher education. Doubly so, as a lively campaign for democratic higher education has begun that needs all the intelligent support it can get.

The pity is that we do need new initiatives committed to high quality and with a spirit of enterprise in higher education.

Misleading

On its professionally designed website the College presents itself as follows :

New College of the Humanities is a new concept in university-level education. It offers education in excellence and an outstanding academic environment in the heart of London. The College was founded by 14 of the world's top academics.

One of those top academics, Richard Dawkins, when challenged wrote on his website, "This is the brainchild of A C Grayling, NOT me... Professor Grayling invited me to join the professoriate and give some lectures". Another, Peter Singer, the Laureate Professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics in Melbourne, said he was only doing it because "If NCH did not exist the students on full scholarships... would not be able to get a high quality education", an odd claim that might have benefited from a little more application of public ethics. Neither of these 'top academics' write in the spirit of 'founders', that is as moving spirits of the initiative as a whole. Two others, Linda Colley and David Cannadine, are full time professors at Princeton University in the US and have agreed to lecture for just one hour a year and told the Guardian they merely "offered support". Colley adds that NCH's claims are "wonderfully odd – and of course profoundly misleading".

Misleading indeed. For example the way the 14 'top academics' are listed as the 'professoriate' on the 'Who we are' page of the website. They are not professors at NCH. Not one of them are part of its faculty nor are they responsible for the courses the students will be examined on, a point well made by James Ladyman in the New Statesman who says it is not a university at all. An 'outstanding academic environment' must mean a mix of graduates, PhD students and teachers doing research. Will the NCH fund the sabbaticals essential for this? I doubt that this is in the business plan.

In his personal message, Grayling says, "14 highly distinguished academics have founded New College. They will contribute personally to your educational experience". The first sentence is false in that it implies they have come together to create the venture, whereas they are part-time supporters. Technically, you could justify the second sentence if being in a lecture hall with 300 others listening to Cannadine once a year counts as his 'contributing personally to your educational experience'. People may be inspired by such an experience, even if it is only to conclude 'never again!'. But this sentence too gives a false impression.

That 'Who we are' page also states 'Registered Charity no. 1141608'. This misled Sarah Churchwell who argued in the Guardian that Grayling should be 'given a chance' precisely because, "AC Grayling has been quoted as saying that he intends the NCH to learn from the US model – which doesn't use fees to enrich shareholders. I have seen no evidence that the NCH – a registered charity, according to its website – proposes to do so, either". Perhaps as an American she has not allowed for British perfidy. She continues, "If in fact it is for profit...  it will fully deserve condemnation". It is for-profit. The professors will own a third of the shares and I have discussed with Grayling what might happen if the main investors decide to sell their majority holding. 

As for that charity misleadingly placed on the 'Who we are' page, its objects are to promote teaching and research in humanities higher education by awarding scholarships and bursaries and maintenance... to students enrolled at the New College of the Humanities. Grayling and his colleagues have set it up so that it can provide the scholarships they need, and their plan is to pay a proportion of the income the company gets from its £18,000 annual fees into the charity, which will then provide the  scholarship fees that will then be paid back into the for-profit business.

As Grayling admits to Richard Godwin in a great interview in the Evening Standard, it also seems that NCH is planning for most of its projected scholarship students to get the new soft student loans that are in effect a "form of government subsidy". Part of Finlayson's warning back in December was that taxpayers' resources will be used to fund the private sector.

Another way in which NCH is arguably misleading is in the courses that it offers. It appears to have lifted these wholesale from the websites of existing London colleges. Indeed it has been accused of plagiarism, a  serious charge for the launch document of what claims to be an 'outstanding' intellectual institution. I was at a meeting summoned by the Facebook protest site. Around 130 people gathered in University College London on Monday 6 June, the day after NCH had been announced in the Sunday Times. The man next to me from Royal Holloway made a protest on these lines. I asked him to explain what precisely he meant. He was Nick Lowe, a Reader in Classics. He showed me the NCH's module description of its history course on his iPad and said "I wrote that!". He and his colleagues – there was another incensed member of the Royal Holloway faculty at the meeting – said they had not been asked nor was their work acknowledged. Meanwhile over at the Times Higher Education website you can read how Gabriel Egan rediscovered his youthful efforts at creating a syllabus of twenty years ago (the 200-word course description, the prescribed reading, the 'topics for special consideration' were all mine...). Grayling's response is,

"We offer University of London international programme degrees, so that is the syllabus we are preparing the students for. It is reductive to describe it as repackaging … there is a quarter more content, contact with some rather distinguished people, and preparation for professional life."

This is disingenous, NCH should at least acknowledge its sources. Also its prospectus page refers to 'your University of London degree' not 'your University of London international programme degree'. The latter does not sound such good value for £18,000 a year, does it? Once again that famous phrase 'economical with the truth' comes to mind. The New College website would surely be reprimanded by the Advertising Standards Authority were it to qualify for its scrutiny.

Wrong in principle

Everyone will make mistakes when they start up a new project. But first impressions are hugely important, especially if the proposal is presented as a response to the crisis of the humanities in the UK. There is indeed a crisis in the research, writing and teaching of the subjects that define the meaning of our society. When a group of leading academics is brought together to do something about this, it is a matter of importance for the whole country. We are not just being presented with a modest attempt to add some resources and diversity to an impoverished sector of HE. We are being offered a way forward for the reproduction of  traditional, high standards of scholarship in a modern context – a high profile direction as to how we can 'do something about' the impoverishment of humanities teaching.

The first thing which we can all agree on is the need for the re-establishment of honesty in public life and policy: for clarity of purpose and an integrity that market spin and bureaucratic correctness have undermined. But far from providing such transparency and excellence the NCH has covered itself with a sense of duplicitous salesmanship. Apparently compounded by its proclaimed use of the University of London facilities for which it seems there is as yet no agreement.

Why has someone so fluent and aware of the importance of clarity as Anthony Grayling created something so 'profoundly misleading'? The answer is surely this. What is genuinely original about NCH is that he has gone to the private capital market and worked hard to raise funds for higher education. The real achievement so far is the recruitment of a high-powered business and administrative team, the writing and re-writing of the business plans, the different projections of income, calculations about the amounts to be earmarked for scholarships, the negotiation of shares in the equity and actually raising the capital. With most business start-ups all this is the back-end and you launch by marketing the product. But higher education has never before been treated as a product and sold as a commodity in Britain. If NCH had been explicit about this, as well as its ownership, and published its business plans we'd have had an honest prospectus. The various misleading formulations all stem from the decision not to do this.

It would have highlighted a core issue. Is it wrong in principle for the teaching of the humanities to be undertaken by for-profit companies? I think it is. I support diversity, pluralism and open competition in higher education. I want strong local and national provision though I oppose the idea that there should only be a single state system that 'knows best'. If an English George Soros wanted to imitate what he gave to his homeland in Hungary and endow an independent but not-for-profit university I'd cheer, even if it charged high fees for those who could afford them, provided it had an extensive scholarship programme. Also, when it comes to professional and technical higher education, educational businesses do offer effective training.

But however much the UK needs resources in higher education the answer is not to introduce the stock exchange into tutorials for the humanities. This is what the NCH plans. The claim is that this will have no influence on what is taught. Those who have put up the money, however, have done so to make money. This will be the primary purpose of the New College of the Humanities, as with any business. The humanities will be serving the bottom line.

We are not witnessing the creation of an educational mutual, which might include its students as temporary members, taking out loan capital. That would be an inventive way of raising new resources. This is a venture where the main shareholders will be able to sell their stake if the initial returns suggest their holdings are valuable. As we all know the new owners will then demand a higher return to justify the price of their acquisition. This is the logic of the market as it seeks to maximize its returns. It is not humanly impossible for a capitalist to refuse to act in this way. But if that is the intention it had better be stated clearly at the outset or it isn't going to happen.

Worse, the teaching staff will hold shares. This is the genuinely 'new concept' for NCH's aim of an 'outstanding academic environment'. I was told recently of a dinner party where the vice-chancellor of a large university was asked to justify his salary of more than £300,000. His reply was that vice-chancellors don't have stock options! If NCH succeeds they will. (Not that this will lead to a reduction in their salaries.)

I have written about the implications of such an embrace of the market here with respect to the LSE taking Gaddafi's money. I defend Fred Halliday's view. He said that when his students replied to his critique of third world dictatorships by saying Britain too was corrupt he would reply, "But you can't buy a PhD from the LSE". That's how it should be even if the LSE let him down. Of course education costs money and teachers should be well paid and how we manage this is a great issue for our society. But the starting point must be the integrity to the teaching process with access and qualifications based on merit, with each university being proudly independent. A long effort was needed to establish academic freedom from government, political and religious authority. Today we need to add independence from corporate and financial power. The universities are a vital space for protecting our liberty as a recent manifesto tries to set out. Creating for-profit universities decorated by professorial stars who can cash in thanks to their share of the equity will undermine this by subordinating higher education to the global market.

Undemocractic

This is especially important in this country when it comes to 'top' people funding 'elite' institutions in the humanities. As is well known, the arts and humanities have a long tradition of providing the critical basis for resisting commercialization. The collection of notables gathered by Grayling are bringing their reputations to us saying 'this is the way education should be'. It may be that if you ask them individually they reply that they are not claiming anything of the sort, and that they have just signed up to give some exceptionally well paid lectures (oh yes, and have stake in the equity). But the publicity organised by Grayling and his colleages in their presentation of NCH does in fact make this claim on their behalf.

When I spoke to Anthony Grayling I queried if NCH was just an attempt to recreate the Oxford experience he enjoyed as an undergraduate. Wasn't he also carrying forward government policy. He replied that government policy is "confused" and he doesn't know what it is. A similar faux-naive tone is struck by the other individuals recruited by Grayling. It can be summed up as, "I'm not doing any harm and am only adding a bit of value, what's the problem?".

Paul Gilroy posted a link to compelling short video of Grayling where he says that to be a citizen we must all "think clearly and have an alert understanding of what is happening in the world".

Quite. And what is happening in the world, especially the world of higher education? The Coalition is opening up higher education to for-profit providors. The battle over fees may have been lost for the immediate future. But the attempt to marketize higher education has only just begun. As the battle over the NHS demonstrates it need not be lost. You hardly need to be alert to realize that to launch a new for-profit venture at this moment is to take sides in this battle.

Speaking about alertness, you'd have to be in a deep coma not to have realised that it is becoming a genuine battle against the calamitous higher education policies of the Tories and Lib Dems. When their coalition decided to triple fees while abolishing all direct public support for the humanities, an exceptionally intelligent and militant student opposition took to the streets, culminating in the storming of parliament on an unprecedented scale as the legislation was voted through. Now it is attempting to grow into a larger anti-cuts movement. The arguments and experience are well set out in Fight Back! put together by Dan Hancox and his fellow kettled editors, which I am proud to have helped publish – it is free to download. One of the most interesting essays in it is by Aaron Peters who argues in Universities in an age of information abundance that the whole nature of higher education should be rethought on a country-wide networked model, hugely reducing costs through an open system while organising face-to-face teaching support. 

How do you expand access to higher education, especially to those from poorer backgrounds and weaker schools, while ensuring and raising quality and supporting original work? Grayling has no monopoly on asking this question. For the first time a motivated public wants to do something about it. If he agrees with their opposition to the government, as Grayling claims he does, he should have supported the protest movement. Had he done so he could have challenged any 'knee-jerk' calls for making education free for all without asking where the money will come from. Instead, he pursued funding for his own consortium. Then, when the students protest against him, he gives them the finger and tells them that breaking windows and demonstrating won't get anyone anywhere. How can the author of more than one book on the history of liberty suggest that vigorous demonstrations are simply futile? We would not enjoy the liberties we have without them.

It is not just that a hyper-expensive Oxford-style teaching college in the middle of the University of London is regressive, as it seeks to recreate the cloistered privilege of the nineteenth century just as the open-source era is beginning in the twenty-first. Creating it thanks to Swiss-based venture capital is duplicitious, even treacherous, when at the same time you claim to be on the side of those who are – at last – organizing in significant numbers to change the direction of higher education.

Grayling's example

Three key points: what the Coalition is doing to the core non-science subjects by removing all direct funding is a complete disgrace – this is the crime against the humanities, not the creation of the New College.  Something else needs to be done. This should not be trying to go back to the past.

But you have to admit that Grayling has set about trying to create the kind of higher education he wants. It may fail. Instead of his proclaimed objective of providing traditional quality education to British children starved of the opportunity, the relatives of oligarchs and Sheiks will present their 'three A' equivalents to fill the paying places. Or it may be that the business is doomed as it is launched into what the Economist predicts is an education bubble.

Be that as it may, there are two aspects of what Anthony Grayling is doing that I find myself in sympathy with. We need to secure the independence of higher education so that teachers can engage with and challenge the status quo, not so that they can withdraw from it. I admire Grayling's committment to being a public intellectual and going out into the market place on the media and in publishing. Second, by taking action and creating NCH he is saying that many of his colleagues in acadème are wringing their hands pathetically as they watch their resources being cut to ribbons, and are doing nothing about it. They may take a huge amount of care over their students, but they are just doing the best they can while their ships go down. Grayling presents them with a challenge. If you don't agree with him, what are you going to do?

One route is to insist on 'nothing less' than the full direct free provision of Higher Education from taxation to be delivered by the election of a Labour government. Hmmm, I wonder if it might be sensible to have another strategy as well.

It seems to me that there must be lots of opportunities for those who want to make them. There are educational charities that would fund experiments for departments to use the web to share courses and tuition under conditions of feedback. There is the experience of the Open University's distance learning that might perhaps offer possible partnerships. There are trade unions and mutual societies that might support new ways of organising higher education. An initiative has just been launched in Lincoln (without any national publicity of course) to experiment in a different way of organizing higher education. And there are successful businessmen who donate generously to support higher education precisely because they believe in the need for it.

We are entering a period when new forms of practical self-government can be developed. To succeed they will need to achieve at the highest levels of quality while ensuring open access. What better place to start than with our universities?

About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the founder of openDemocracy