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New College for the Humanities: Emperor's New Clothes

A team of celebrity academics, led by philosopher AC Grayling, are launching a new British private university, charging 18k per year. Far from its stated aim of helping save the humanities, the NCH will accelerate the move in the UK towards an educational culture of elites serving the elite
Maeve McKeown
6 June 2011

On 5th June it was announced that philosopher AC Grayling and a team of celebrity academics are launching a new private university.  For £18,000 per year students will be taught subjects including law, economics, history, English literature and philosophy by some of the most eminent thinkers in their field.  A furore among lecturers, students and commentators has ensued.  Contrary to Grayling’s claims that he is saving the humanities from destruction, here I sketch three reasons why NCH is a new front on a tired old cliché – elite institutions serving the elite.

The Arguments for NCH

In an email exchange with the chair of Birkbeck students’ union, Sean Rillo Raczka, Grayling argues that the NCH fees represent the “true economic cost” of university education and that this is reflected in the fees charged in the US and to international students attending British universities.

This argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. International students might pay extortionate fees, but they have the option of paying much less in their home countries.  That option is becoming increasingly unavailable to British students. Today it it is the richest students (or the lucky ones who get a scholarship) that study internationally; will it soon be only the wealthier students who study at home?

In fact, this move towards privatized education in the UK could see more British students studying abroad, because the fees might actually be cheaper.  We could be facing a mass exodus to EU countries, where fees are lower.  If I were about to start university, I would definitely take this option.  Not only would you get a degree for less money, but also learn a foreign language and experience living abroad.  These experiences are valuable in themselves, but thinking in the government’s narrow economistic terms, it would also boost employability post graduation.

Two points on the US system.  Just because another country’s education system charges astronomic fees, doesn’t make it right.  British academia has traditionally prided itself on the fact that it doesn’t charge fees like America, that it has a publically funded education system; we should continue to fight for that.  Secondly, while Harvard’s fees may be circa $40k per year, most students don’t pay that.  The majority get bursaries and scholarships because the financial resources of US universities are vast; the middle classes generally pay a percentage of the fees, and only the very rich pay full price.  In this country, everyone, except the very poorest, will be paying £9000 per year or what looks like £18,000+ at private higher education institutions.  That’s a very different prospect to the US system in reality.

The main argument in favour of NCH seems to be that it is the only option to protect the humanities now that higher education is being privatised anyway.  But as Adam Ramsay points out, there were alternatives.  Lecturers and students have been fighting to preserve and increase funding for higher education for years.  If Grayling was serious about saving the humanities, he would have got involved in the fight, not dived in to open a private university the second that option became available.  His status, and the status of the other academics involved, lends a credence to the project of the privatisation of education that it otherwise wouldn’t have had.

What’s the alternative now?  Apparently the college has a £10million start-up fund.  Why do students then have to pay  £54,000 per degree on top of that?  If NCH has that amount of fundraising power, why not fund the college entirely by private philanthropy and award places based solely on merit?  (Of course, merit is difficult to judge in an education system determined by class, wealth and geography; but this would at least lend some weight to their argument.)

The Academics Involved

Part of the injustice of NCH, is that the 'top' academics in their fields will only be accessible to the very rich.  (I'm using quotation marks because some of those involved are arguably more the media personalities in their field than the leading intellectuals – Steven Pinker, Grayling).  However, that aside, this could represent a worrying trend.  We already have a two-tier education system in this country.  We are heading towards an even more stratified system where the 'leaders in their fields' teach exclusively at private institutions, while state universities are populated with lesser-known academics, who as soon as they get a few notable publications will disappear to the private unis.

In effect, these private institutions will be the elite teaching the elite, churning out the future academics and decision-makers to the exclusion of the rest of the population.  A sad thought, but if academics of seeming integrity (Peter Singer, Ronald Dworkin) are so quick to jump on the bandwagon, it seems to me a likely and ever imminent proposition.

What’s also sad about this is that all but one member of NCH’s 'professoriate' are men, and only one isn’t white.  The children of the elite will be taught almost exclusively by white men, perpetuating yet another cycle of privilege so many have fought hard to overcome.  This represents an astonishing level of arrogance on these men’s part, to think that they needn’t look outside their narrow, self-serving demographic to promote diversity.

Apparently students will take a compulsory module in 'critical thinking' at this institution.  The make-up of the institution proves what an empty term critical thinking has become. Have these supposed leading critical thinkers thought remotely critically about their own privilege? It will be a rich, white man’s version of critical thinking... I wonder how much feminism, critical race theory, post-structuralism etc. will be taught. 

Richard Dawkins' response to the furore is interesting.  He seems keen to distance himself from the venture. His comment suggests that Grayling called up his mates and asked them to give some lectures at his new university. It could be that the NCH is really just a huge ego-trip for Grayling, which has nothing to do with providing educational opportunities to the most talented as he claims.  This wouldn't be very surprising given his ubiquitous presence in the British media (some people might think he is the only philosopher in Britain); and since the original name of the college was 'Grayling Hall', it seems a plausible interpretation.

The Language

One of the most disturbing aspects of this venture is the language being used to promote it.  Grayling claims NCH will open doors to the talented underprivileged with a range of bursaries, while simultaneously setting the college up as the institution of the elite.

Teaching the “gifted” – in the true time-honored self-serving tradition of the elite, gifted is equated with the rich. It is not the gifted who will attend this private institution, but those who can afford it.

Rivaling Oxbridge – Oxbridge is already the institution of the elite.  7% of the UK population attends private schools, yet they represent 45% of the Oxbridge intake. A public school student is 55 times more likely to be admitted than a student on free school meals.  In 2010, one student of Caribbean descent was admitted to Oxbridge, while there were over 200 applications from black students.

Career options – On the website it states, “Your options will include careers in industry, healthcare, accountancy and finance, public administration, civil service and defence, retail, business and management, construction, law and the media.”  And in the media the College claims it will “inspire the next generation of lawyers, journalists, financiers, politicians, civil servants, writers and teachers”.  So on the one hand they claim to promote talent, while on the other they sell themselves as prepping students for traditionally middle to upper class careers that the upper echelons of society aspire to and are primed for from birth.

Emperor’s New Clothes

The New College for the Humanities is not the answer to the UK government’s dismantling of the education system, as Grayling claims. It is an excuse for a few rich, privileged men to make a lot of money at the expense of vulnerable students desperate for a leg-up the career ladder, while leaving their disadvantaged peers to rot.  Creating elite institutions – while offering a few bursaries to the “deserving poor” – will necessarily end up serving the elite.

What is especially disappointing about this development is the people involved.  It is expected of some (Niall Ferguson), but others, in my opinion, should know better (Singer).  The opportunism, arrogance, lack of self-criticism, and egoism involved is astounding and unconscionable.  By all appearances, this is an attempt to make a lot of quick cash, rather than to save the future of the humanities.  We can’t let a system be created where Oxbridge seems like a less elitist option.  We have got to fight back.

An emergency meeting on the NCH is planned tonight at University College London. Join the facebook group for updates.

This piece was originally posted on Maeve McKeown's blog, Student Theory.

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