New College of the Humanities – Oh, the humanity!

There has been an astonishing storm of media and blog invective railing against the announcement by AC Grayling and a host of other celebrity academics that they are setting up a New College of the Humanities. The concept appears to be to establish an unashamedly intellectually elitist liberal arts college in Bloomsbury, combining Oxbridge-style one to one tuition with lectures from leading popular academics and a broad syllabus requiring humanities students to take courses in science and business/work skills. However, the element which has been most criticised is the economic elitism implicit in the college’s £18,000 a year fees.

I’ve written before that I don’t really have a problem with promoting elites by merit. Being an elite footballer (extra-marital dalliances aside) is never seriously considered a bad thing for those boys who have the ability to do it. There aren’t any angry media tirades against Manchester United being ruthlessly selective in choosing which children get to participate in its academy, nor indeed that the ranks of professional footballers include far fewer privately educated players than would be representative of the 7% of children who attend such schools. So, at least in principle, elite education for those who have the highest levels of academic aptitude, ability and application should be no different.

So, it is understandable if the worry is focused on students being excluded from the elite education to be provided at NCHum by reason of cost. Well, it would be if the education that was being provided, along with the cachet of the institution was so great that students who could not afford to go to it would be disadvantaged both absolutely and relative to the students who were able to afford entry.

This is where things get a bit more muddled. Several commentators have presented good arguments against the quality of the education that NCHum might provide. For example Professor Richard Moorhead at sets out some concerns about the scope for NCHum to teach in innovative ways given that it will not be in control of its curriculum and examinations along with other balanced criticisms. David Allen Green describes NCHum as Grayling’s folly at and convincingly sets out why the “name” academics are no guarantee of educational excellence.

However, if NCHum is going to be academically questionable, that puts a great deal of pressure on it to establish a very strong institutional reputation so that having the NCHum diploma in addition to a University of London International BA/LLB will be considered by employers to be a mark of exceptional value. Ironically, there may be an extent to which the loud condemnation of NCHum for social elitism could help to establish just such a brand value for its graduates. If NCHum selects students who are going to go out and be great adverts for the college the brand will grow, but on the basis of those students’ personal merits.

Even if this does happen, the numbers of students graduating from NCHum are likely to be low (about the same as a small Oxbridge college) and they will be competing with large numbers of graduates from Oxbridge and other internationally recognised leading universities. It is difficult to see how they could form an elite in any meaningful way. The entry requirements for NCHum are intended to be high (3 As at A level minimum) so in a small way, NCHum will reduce the pressure on places at existing elite universities. As the high fees at NCHum will make it more accessible to students from wealthier backgrounds the majority of the reduction in demand at other universities will be in relation to rich students, thereby potentially increasing their accessibility by poor students. I don’t think this should be overstated though – I would be surprised if in practice NCHum wasn’t largely attended by overseas students.

It may be that the real social elitism criticism is not about what NCHum itself will realistically be able to achieve but rather the possibility that its success would be the thin end of the wedge. If NCHum were to be successful in attracting students and academics of suitable quality beyond the initial novelty value at launch, it would encourage other private universities to establish themselves. Worse still, it might put pressure on top publicly-funded universities to seek to become private universities. If NCHum and others are able to attract substantial levels of endowment funding and to poach the brightest students and staff from Oxbridge et al that could make Oxbridge fight for their own independence so as to be able to compete.

This does not strike me as particularly plausible because, again, it relies on NCHum having to be even more excellent and successful than Grayling and his backers believe possible. This is not consistent with the sensible scepticism of Moorhead and Green about the education that NCHum could offer. NCHum may be an abomination, but it is unlikely to become the model for a new significant mainstream segment of Higher Education. It is, going back to a football analogy, more like the establishment of MK Dons – a horror in terms of what was done to Wimbledon FC, but not something that is likely to be replicated much or at all.

Finally, for all those who want the NCHum experience but are not likely to be quite up to getting into one of the top universities and can’t afford £18,000 a year a couple of tips. If you want the cachet of the top universities, go to a good one that is not quite at the top but still has a good academic reputation in your subject. Work hard, get a good degree and cultivate your tutors so that they will give you good references. Then, if after a couple of years of studying, when you know more about your subject and what you want to do, apply to do a Masters at one of the top universities. Entry is somewhat less competitive than at undergraduate level, you get the Oxford (or wherever) degree along with whatever social advantages you think are available. Better still, as a graduate student you are more likely to get regular meaningful engagement with the leading academics in your field, rather than just the ones who happen to be famous but specialise in something else.

If you aren’t quite up to that but just want to experience the teaching of the stars, go anywhere you like, but look up the lecture lists for Oxford to see what seminars and lectures your favourite academics are giving. Do a little more research on how to get into the buildings and just turn up. Unless things have changed a lot and security gates put into all academic buildings it should be possible to get into a load of lectures and seminars. I remember attending a fantastic series of seminars in Jurisprudence which were debates between Professors Dworkin and Finnis when I was an undergraduate. Anyone could have walked in off the street to the seminar room at University College but in practice there were rarely more than a dozen people attending. Less flippantly, the star academics often do free public lectures so if you are interested in them, find out. Pretty much anyone can go and hear the Oxford Professor of Poetry’s lectures or those of other celebrity Professors (sadly I didn’t make the time to hear Professor Jackie Mason’s series on comedy, but am glad to have gone to hear Seamus Heaney after years of studying his poetry at school).


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