Grayling’s Eminence; Or, 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 do feel somewhat sorry for A.C. Grayling. Following his sudden exit from the Birkbeck scene, former colleagues sent a short but apt letter to The Guardian, expressing appropriate levels of dismay and resistance to the innovation of the New College of the Humanities. They raised basically two objections. First, that the New College is for-profit, substituting the business of teaching in place of the vocation of research. And second, that it is in the ‘vanguard’ of efforts to link education to wealth, partly via a leaching of public resources.

Although many prominent names were used to unveil New College, few seem in sight now that it is under sustained attack (Peter Singer, where are you?). And Grayling, somewhat to his credit, keeps replying to the antiquated nay-sayers desperately clinging to the sinking ship of public provision. Perhaps the fullest public defence has come in response to the Birkbeck letter. Although garlanded by academic niceties (“with respect”; “I would be very grateful”), the ultimate conclusion is that his critics lack some basic faculties of reason: “I have seen only an emotional case for scapegoating our project”.

Surely, then, there are firm responses to the proliferating critiques? Grayling’s fuller case for New College turns primarily on the idea that students are being under-charged rather than over-charged. The relevant comparisons? That an MSc in Finance at LSE for an overseas student costs almost £26,000 (with many other programmes charging in the £15-21,000 range) and that a DPhil in cardiovascular medicine at Oxford will set you back nearly £27,000 if you’re not from the EU. The point being that high fees for some already subsidise lower fees for others. Now, you’ll notice what has been done here: £18,000 for an undergraduate degree for all students is being justified on the grounds that you can find a handful of prominent programmes elsewhere that charge more than this for masters programmes for non-EU students.

As an argument for justice it has some merits (Why the disparity here? What are the ‘real’ costs of educating a doctor or financial specialist?). But as a defence of New College as prosaic rather than parasitic it doesn’t stand up to much. And I’m sure there’s a latin term for this kind of fallacy. A direct comparison with liberal arts funding in the US would have offered us more, but that would have required admitting that there is something new about the New College in the UK setting. You’ll recall that, before people starting off letting flares at Grayling’s talks, this was very much the selling point of New College. Its online welcome still announces: “New College of the Humanities is a new concept in university-level education”.

Lots of the new then, which makes it worth thinking through some of the older ideas of the university, as Steve Fuller did so wonderfully back in February. But there is something yet more damning in Grayling’s reply. He says that his project can’t be vanguardist. In a repeat of the AHRC debacle, apparently bright people conclude that you can’t be complicit if the Minister didn’t call you directly and tell you to do something. Grayling clarifies that he is under no compulsion of Government and has no love for the current reconstitution of UK higher education, as if that matters. Moreover, “we cannot be in the vanguard of what has long been happening”. This is the crux of a claim made before: that New College is simultaneously following an economic pathway outside of its control and that it will have no detrimental impact outside of its own halls.

Other engaged in privatised education do happen to think that the New College will accelerate some market openings. But notice that Grayling can’t have it both ways. His argument against allegations of vanguardism is that New College is too small and insignificant for anyone to follow its lead. But his argument for an £18,000 fee compares New College to comparatively small and unrepresentative courses which charge more than he intends to (about 80 people take that MSc in Finance at LSE). An accidentally immanent critique, this mode of argument illustrates exactly how a vanguardist framing works, and has worked over the last years. Find an institution that charges more than you do and has a good reputation. Point out that you could do more, and do it better, if you had their money. Campaign for that outcome while ignoring or dismissing arguments for higher levels of public investment. Repeat. Change the discursive and economic landscape in a series of comparative expansions.

Grayling suggests high fees elsewhere as justification for his high fees, but then expects us to believe that his high fees (which are much more clearly comparable with undergraduate provision than are the courses he cites) won’t be used by anyone anywhere to militate for a further uncapping or greater move to student debt and ‘consumer-led’ education over equal access and public goods. It is hard to see the logic in such a position, not least when it already provides indications of how such an appeal by others would run:

Note one thing: the deafening silence of the vice-chancellors in the controversy over our college project. Why? Because as the individuals most acutely involved in battling with impossible arithmetic, they understand the realities.

Please.

Andrew McGettigan’s excellent and much circulated analysis points out that marketisation requires the softening up of older providers via the introduction of one or more exemplars of new learning: 1) independent, non-profit providers like the University of Buckingham; 2) private, for-profit providers like BPP and now NCH (perhaps owned by people like Apollo); 3) Edexcel in relation with colleges; 4) Cameron’s planned ‘Big Society University’; and 5) globalised multi-nationals. New College has to be viewed in this context and not, as Grayling wants, as some minor footnote. Here’s McGettigan:

The new market conditions must first be created. A significant amount of intervention is required to bring about a ‘level playing field’ in which new, more commercial, operations can compete successfully to drive down costs. The first steps here have already been achieved. First, the complete removal of central funding to arts, humanities and social science degrees exposes the established provision to potential competition in a manner that gives the lie to Willetts’s claim that the cuts have been ‘scrupulously neutral’. (No new provider is currently planning to offer STEM degrees, which are expensive to run and require large overhead and start-up costs.) Second, students at private establishments have already been granted access to the student loans and grants…Third, when viewed in conjunction with the new visa restrictions on overseas students (a political decision affecting an otherwise independent and substantial income stream) and the cuts just announced from HEFCE for the 2011/12 budget, we can conclude that universities are being softened up. Prior to a major reorganization of higher education these cuts are punitive and part of a concerted effort to destabilize the sector for the entry of new agents… What is proposed does not simply benefit small, niche operations but creates the conditions for ‘creative chaos’ similar to that to be unleashed on the National Health Service.

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2 thoughts on “Grayling’s Eminence; Or, 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.

  1. I agree with much of this. But isn’t the relevant comparison the £16000pa that Oxford claims it actually costs it to teach an undergraduate (note that the shortfall comes from endowment funding, which is something that NCH claims it wants to build up, in order to provide subsidies for poorer students)? And note also that Grayling really does seem committed (in contrast to Oxford) to 1-on-1 tutorials and that NCH apparently say they will be paying their lecturers more than the standard rate. It’s interesting then to do the maths – my guess is that they simply don’t have a working business model and that for all the worries about it NCH might actually fail.

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    • I think Grayling recognises that its not the most relevant comparison precisely because of the subsidy/endowment component. Those in favour of NCH do talk about this, but that’s because they’re almost entirely interested in the supply side – getting more money and time for academics, improving teaching rations, banishing bureaucrats and so on.

      But that’s not what motivates critics. We’re much more concerned with the issue of how much individual students pay and how that changes the political economy of education (if you’ll allow the slight grandiosity of that). You could conceivably have two systems, both of which delivered £18,000 of education per undergraduate, one for which I would fight hard to work (based on a public good model, with some heavily redistributive element, ideally at the taxation end); and another to which I would strongly object in principle (because it was based on up-front payment, debt, and a pattern of financial eligibility that made it a way for those with more to get ahead further and faster).

      Which is all by way of saying that I think Grayling compared with high-paying non-EU masters students because they’re the only people in the UK at the moment who pay up-front even close to what he’s proposing to charge for UK/EU undergraduates. Others have suggested, like you, that the institutional advantages and subsidies at Oxbridge mean that going to NCH will inevitable be seen as paying twice as much for an Oxbridge education, but without the prestige and contacts.

      Which isn’t to say that discussion shouldn’t centre on how much it costs/should cost to teach an undergraduate. One of the more disappointing things about recent discussions of higher education is that a more comfortable adversarial mode has supplanted a thorough discussion of that.

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