The University Delusion?

June 5, 2011

It’s not every morning you wake up to find a ‘new university’ being announced in the United Kingdom. The BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-13659394) and Sunday Times describing an initiative to launch a New College of the Humanities, to be based in Bloomsbury, charging £18,000 in fees (per year presumably) and set to rival Oxford and Cambridge by embracing the one-to-one tutorial system (at a cost).

There is still much to be explained and explored. Professor Grayling is the principle instigator of the project, due to accept its first students in September 2012, and he is also listed as one of the Trustees of the organisation. Intriguingly the Trusts is based in Stamford, Lincolnshire and registered in late April. They don’t appear to have an ac.uk registration and instead are listed as www.nchum.org.

The higher education sector in the UK is undergoing radical change, and there will surely be many smiling faces in Government circles. And yet, the story does give pause for thought. A private (for-profit) charging £18,000 for humanities might suggest government re-think its value-for-money proposition in these essential disciplines. If nothing else, Grayling is suggesting how cost-effective existing provision in these disciplines must currently be. Clearly there is a demand for these subjects, and someone in the dark musky corridors of the Senate building must have decided that the ‘price was right’. One can imagine the ‘vision’ of one ‘fellow’ giving rise to hopes in the financial planning circles of the University of London for a ‘commercial spin-off’, a private cash-generation machine in the heart of the Bloomsbury campus. 375 students is not such a large target, but the reputation their presence and the activity of their illustrious faculty will bring to the UCL-SOAS-Birbeck ‘zone’ might be considered a fair marketing gambit.

Perhaps most intriguing of all is the suggestion that all undergraduates will have core “intellectual skills” modules in science literacy, logic and critical thinking and applied ethics. The LSE will doubtless be thrilled to see its contribution to the new institution having introduced a common LSE100 course to achieve much the same purpose (Niall Ferguson has been teaching on that programme) , and UCL is exploring something comparable in its ‘Arts and Science’ object-centred module. Employability skills takes many forms but this provision has to make sense. This is the only contemporary and progressive aspect to the project. There may be a rather curious ‘perpetuation of the elite’ notion to this New College of the Humanities, an attempt to reinvigorate the direct line between an Oxbridge PPE and a ministerial PPS, but there does at least seem to have been serious consideration given to the concept of a ‘contemporary Graduate’, the skills needed to make the degree investment count.

In many respects the ambition makes total sense. The ‘gold-standard’ Grayling calls it in the promotional video, of one-to-one tutorial contact, high contact hours and professors who really will ‘teach’ is not a ‘bad’ idea. The sector is indeed challenged by competition from overseas providers, the changing nature of civil society and uncertain state intervention, the shifting nature of knowledge generation and acquisition in new, unforeseen, digital formats. The danger is this risks looking like an elite few running for the oak-lined bunker because they know someone will and it may as well be them. Dawkins after all knows something about the survival of the fittest.

Those that lament the ‘good old days’ of ‘education for education’ sake will doubtless feel vindicated, and simultaneously confused, by the implications behind the headlines. While the new private providers, themselves seen as pariahs on the publicly funded system, are challenging the sector by undermining the funding models, the remuneration pattens, the investment in ‘campus infrastructures’, and instead advocating new technologies, new modes of learning, new models of practice, Grayling’s bold and brave leap into the past is one certainly worth watching.

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