It won’t have escaped your notice that there has been a flurry of disgust, disbelief, protest and rage at the announcement of the New College of the Humanities (an aside: ‘of the’ Humanities? Why not ‘for the’ Humanities?). There have also been a number of responses that pretty much add up to ‘meh’: to wit, there are some bad things, but also some good things about Grayling’s Folly. And then there has been some welcoming of this project, and its ‘chutzpah’. Since we are in a downward vortex of vanishing funding and academic status, why not expand where we can? And why damn the entrepreneurial? As Brian Leiter puts it:
NCH is just the natural continuation of the elimination of 75% of government funding for higher education and 800% increases in tuition in the space of a few years. If the Brits can’t even keep the Tories out of office, and if their party of the Left is now in bed with the Neoliberals, it’s really hard to see why one should think “petitioning” the government for more government funding for higher ed will produce any results. The battle to be won is at the polls, and NCH is just a symptom of the battle already lost.
All this makes me think it’s worth clarifying the case against, and the potential mitigating factors. William Cullerne Bown adduces two (or three) arguments in New College’s favour. First, it’s innovative, and we shouldn’t knock that. Second, the pedagogical model is appealing (“where you can simply study and teach without all the grief of modern university life”). Third, kinda, private competition is good in a sector dominated by state provision. Leiter similarly cites freedom from bureaucratic power and the advancement of core intellectual subjects, and provides a a healthy dose of perspective (these fees are piddling by US standards). This, in particular, seems an American response. In a land dotted with such institutions, the risks seem small and the benefits (of cash flow, variety, even access) palpable and welcomed.
Perhaps the lines of contestation merely mimic those of right (for) and left (against). No great surprise, that, but it leaves unspecified the content of the reasons and their ranking. So why object?
The New College, on its own terms, is a vector of privilege. It is said that 20% of students will get some support, but that leaves 80% who will be paying fees upfront at £18,000, now that hopes of eligibility for government-backed loans appear to have been dashed. The juicy promise of intimate pedagogical experiences at the knee of a Ronald Dworkin or a Peter Singer seems to have evaporated, but one-on-one tutorials with yet-to-be-recruited ‘middling’ academics are not to be sniffed at (the contempt from both sides for the unknown under-labourers who will provide the actual teaching is itself a depressing aspect of the whole affair). It doesn’t seem a stretch to imagine that students at the New College will do better than those in classes of 25 or more elsewhere. After all, that’s the bloody point isn’t it? There are some for whom the ability to buy entrance to a better education and better life paths than your equally gifted peers (‘gifted’ being a prominent discursive linchpin in the New College public relations lexicon) is no problem, in theory or in practice. But such people are rare, at least in the academy, and the burden is on those who think otherwise to explain to us how this amounts to a form of justice.
Yet the context can’t be left aside, supporters will reply. We are where we are, and cash is vanishing fast. Not only will this particular college provide its students with the best quality education possible, but it will set the bar and make the case for the humanities generally. Interestingly, contra Leiter’s optimism, I have not seen any comment from Grayling (who has now made several interventions) to suggest that a purpose of New College is to re-align government priorities. His thinking is much more fatalistic than that, and reports from yesterday’s protest-by-incessant-questioning at Foyles confirm that his own view is that protest politics have failed, that the horse of public provision has bolted the stable of State, and that we all better starting making the most of the new landscape.
Unusual as it may sound, this under-sells the import of the New College. Should it be a success (and that’s a big ‘if’) it would surely exert a new pressure on UK higher education. Yes, we have private universities already. Yes, there is private tuition for University of London degrees. But the ‘we’re-the-next-Oxford’ talking points unleashed on the weekend were always going to give this a different tinge. Grayling is right to say that it costs a lot to educate an undergraduate and I can believe that there is a market for prestigious private universities (or mock-universities) costing more than £9,000 a year and less than £18,000. But entering a field without any well-respected private colleges isn’t the same as starting just another liberal arts venture State-side. And it is in fact part of A.C. Grayling’s case for the New College that it represents a ‘new model’, so the dissimulation of the last days about it being just a quiet little place for bright kids won’t wash. If others can cite New College as an innovator, and a realistic, properly-costed one at that, the clamouring for a greater freeing up of fee limits and admissions caps will only grow, to the detriment of already rather beleaguered notions of equal access and common good.
Then there’s the parasitism on public resources. This is somewhat more ambiguous, mainly on the grounds that much of this is apparently possible already and no great innovation. But the ‘borrowing’ of course content wholesale from others, while promoting the education offered by your outfit as exceptional and intimating that your syllabi have been crafted by the very hands of your fourteen globe-striding intellectual giants, rather stretches the bounds of good faith. If New College is paying over the odds for what it will use (and hence channelling much needed cash into other colleges, as Grayling contends) then it merely exposes itself to another charge: that it is scamming applicants. This parasitism goes hand-in-hand with the profit motive. Grayling reports that about a third of New College is owned by the Professors and that it is a private company mainly because it was too complicated to make it a charity (although it already has a charitable arm). Make of that what you will.
Now, these objections don’t all sit comfortably side by side, the crucial tension being between objections on the grounds of unfair advantage and objections to deceptive advertising. The most persuasive of the counter-critiques is that this is a lot of egregious blood-letting, with students and academics taking out months and years of frustration at the crumbling of higher education on the relatively defenceless and innocent bait of New College. This is particularly so when it comes to calls for boycott and grey-listing. What is it about £18,000 tuition paid voluntarily at a single institution that gives rise to a moral duty of denunciation and excommunication when the same academics will continue to teach in institutions where £9,000 will now be charged with no realistic alternatives? Are we not rather externalising some rotten truths?
We should freely admit the jouissance of going after Grayling and concede too that he is, at least for now, a minor footnote and symptom in a much more general debacle. But can’t we have it both ways? If the above points make for a convincing case against New College (and I think they do), then we are entitled to a little glee in its sudden misfortunes and in the fall from grace of those who lent it their reputations. What are we, such bloodless ghouls that we can’t enjoy a little scandal?
Not that we can escape quite so easily. Grayling’s prognosis for resistance is over-pessimistic and clearly self-serving (what choice did I have?), but it bites none the less. The creative work of thinking the future university remains embryonic, its pre-requisites and modes of operation the focus of loose talk amongst disgruntled intellectual labourers rather than programmes for action. This constitutes no pardon for the New College affair. Rather, it exposes a new dimension of perfidy at the same time as it issues a challenge to those of us still enamoured with the idea of a public university. The most damning thing that we can say about Grayling, Dawkins, Singer et al. is that they embarked on the New College project consciously, voluntarily and, in at least some cases, with gusto. Given the resources at their disposal, their connections, their intellectual weight and influence (in some circles at least), their experience and values, this is what they proposed? What other models were possible but ignored? What ones might we build?