Settling back on a chesterfield sofa at the £18,000-a-year New College of the Humanities, Anthony Grayling, the college’s master, reflects on a tumultuous three years...............
When the college, situated in a smart Bloomsbury town house in London’s Bedford Square, opened its doors in 2012, Grayling was one of the most controversial figures in academia.
With his band of celebrity friends-turned-guest professors, he was accused of betraying the humanities and ushering in a high-fee, for-profit model that would put elite university education out of reach for the majority of students.
However, with the college’s first students due to graduate this summer, Grayling says that he feels more vindicated than ever in setting up his institution.
That is partly down to the academic performance of NCH’s first cohort, who he says achieve at least one degree classification higher on average than other students taking the University of London International Programmes – the degrees the college offers.
“Our students walk away with all the academic prizes,” he says, adding that several are heading to Oxbridge colleges for postgraduate study this autumn.
“That validates how we pick students and the teaching by my faculty, who are all research active,” he says.
However, despite the blaze of publicity that heralded the college’s opening (it featured on the front page of The Sunday Times), student numbers of about 160 are still well below the 1,000-student body mentioned three years ago. “The 1,000 students was our aim after 10 years,” Grayling points out, saying that student intake will pick up soon as the college is poised to gain the Home Office accreditation it needs to recruit international students.
This piece from the Guardian in 2013 gives the reader some of the flavor of the place:
Whichever party – or group of parties – takes office next month, the “funding crisis will speed up the process of universities going independent”, allowing them to charge far higher fees, with the University of Cambridge likely to go first, Grayling predicts.
“They are losing about £70 million on undergraduate teaching a year while having to observe all these restrictions from the Office for Fair Access,” says Grayling, who believes the endowment model at NCH, which has raised £2.5 million so far, is a more effective way to support poorer students.
But would elite universities risk cutting themselves off from public research funding by going private?
That would not happen, argues Grayling, as UK research could not afford to cut itself off from a world-class institution such as Cambridge.
“All sorts of agencies are going to need their research,” he says, adding that “Cambridge is losing money [on teaching] big time” and “it is unsustainable”.
If private institutions were able to access large amounts of public research cash, might the NCH consider submitting itself to the next research excellence framework?
Grayling rules it out, claiming that the REF represents a “Thatcherite, industrialised idea of academic life” and the need to publish constantly is unsuited to promoting humanities scholarship.
“To mimic the sciences is to miss the way that advances are made in the humanities,” he says, adding that he would rather his academics produced a good book “every 50 years” than write endless journal articles that go unread.
“[To] produce three or four publications every four years is to fell forests for no good purpose,” he says.
At 9.30am promptly, AC Grayling begins a two-hour Introduction to Philosophy lecture for year one students in an airy conservatory at the back of his new private college. For anyone whose attention is straying, there are views on to a yard with plane trees, a white stucco mews house and the blackened brick of the smart Bloomsbury townhouse where the New College of the Humanities is based. None of the 19 students is gazing out of the window, however. They are focused on the lecture, which centres on René Descartes, but considers along the way the nature of knowledge and how we obtain it.(*ahem* Here we are required to pause to note that this model is well entrenched in small liberal arts colleges throughout the US)
"You all know, because you were reading a biography of him last night in the bath no doubt, that Descartes was born in 1596 and died in 1650, a period of great advance in science and philosophy," Grayling begins in a melodious voice. The students make dutiful notes on A4 pads, or straight on to their laptops. The lecture is fascinating; 45 minutes pass happily, and I have to force myself to stop paying attention so I can look at the students: 15 male, four female, all white, dress code quite preppy, not much piercing.
The atmosphere is respectful and a little subdued, so when Grayling cracks a few jokes and in passing mimics a dance in strobe lighting, the laughter is muted. When he pauses to invite "comments, questions or complaints", five of the male students ask questions; the women remain silent. Grayling is encouraging and congratulates the students on the quality of their questions.
It is a useful introduction to a college that is experimenting with a new form of higher education: a liberal arts institution that offers intensive teaching of the humanities in an intimate setting.
Grayling has spent much of the past three years considering how best to obtain knowledge, and this is the realisation of his vision. When he unveiled his plan in 2011, it was framed in part as a protest at the new financial pressures being placed on humanities departments, an answer to concerns that the arrival of fees would make students more mercenary about their subject choices and less inclined to take up non-vocational courses. It would, he warned, lead to humanities departments sacking academics and closing down.
The launch of his plans attracted huge attention, partly because of the star names signed up to teach at the college, among them (in an overwhelmingly male list) Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and Niall Ferguson. The potentially profit-making nature of the institution dismayed many of Grayling's peers, as did the annual fees of £18,000, double the £9,000 payable elsewhere. Writing in this newspaper, Terry Eagleton called the project "odious", cast the academics behind it as a "bunch of prima donnas jumping ship and creaming off the bright and loaded", and added: "For that kind of money, I would demand a team of live-in, round-the-clock tutors, ready to fill me in about Renaissance art or logical positivism at the snap of a finger. I would also expect them to iron my socks and polish my boots."(Here we are required to note that tuition alone at the US private liberal arts colleges can run as high as 50k a year, with room, board and fees pushing the total north of 60k. At today's exchange rate, Grayling's 18k pounds is 27k and change.
(Just as well. More lectures from Ferguson would probably detract from the students' education.)
The environment is tremendously cosy; administrative staff already seem to know most students' names, and enquire tenderly about the progress of coughs and colds. I wonder if this is a bit like what a good crammer or a friendly boarding school sixth form feels like. The teaching staff are extremely committed to the venture, and the tutorial I sit in on (a discussion of a second year student's essay on Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton, with Dr Peter Maber) showcases the advantages of a one-to-one teaching model.
It is an impressive, expensive product, but after a day and a half at the college I'm left feeling a little muddled about the point of the exercise. The college is owned by a business, Tertiary Educational Services Ltd, set up by Grayling and fellow board members, with a view to at some point paying investors a return on the £9m or so raised. Yet with just 56 students enrolled in the first year, and 65 in the second (fewer than the hoped-for numbers) there is no prospect of imminent profit.
For the moment, the academic heart of the enterprise does not seem very radical, because the core degree taught by the college is the standard University of London International Programme. This is a long-established degree course for distance learning; most students on it are based abroad, and may teach themselves, in which case the cost for the entire degree is just £3,800, or £50,000 less than an NCH degree. Because the college has not been recognised as a university it doesn't have the power to design its own degree course. The involvement of the big-name academics is also a bit of a red herring, since they are mostly supplementary to the core teaching, and just come in to deliver a few hours of lectures a year. Ferguson, for example, gave one lecture last year.
"My motivation is twofold," he says. "One is pedagogical, one is predicated on the changes to funding higher education in this country. In England we overspecialise too fast and too early. There seems an absurdity in making people make their specialising decisions at the age of 16. I wanted to import the best aspects of the liberal arts tradition and join it to the best aspects of our own traditional specialist higher education model, which is the weekly, essay-based tutorial." Students are guaranteed a minimum of 12 quality contact hours every week. The idea is to "switch all the lights on, wake people up".