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.


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.

On Objecting to the New College of the Humanities; Or, Who Would Pay £18,000 a Year to Listen to this Outdated Victorian Rationalism When They Could Buy Themselves a Second-Hand Copy of John Stuart Mill?

Yes, this is more comment on the New College, a.k.a. Grayling Hall, a.k.a. Grayling’s Folly, a.k.a. North Oxford in Bedford Square (NOBS), a.k.a. The Ultimate Scab University.

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. Continue reading

The New School for Privatised Inquiry

UPDATE (5 June): Now crossposted at Campaign for the Public University and at Critical Legal Thinking. The New College of the Humanities has already been called The Ultimate Scab University. I should have titled the post that.

Nina Power also has a call for boycott up and a running info post exposing, amongst other things, that many of the Professors involved have bought shares in the New College. A strange kind of workers’ management, but one apparently meant to incentivise its intellectual labourers through the lure of profits on thought. See also the expanding discussion at Leiter Reports and A.C. Grayling’s defence (in reply to the Birkbeck Student Union Chair).

In 1919, John Dewey and others founded The New School for Social Research, intended to offer a democratic and general education for those excluded by existing structures. On the faculty side, this meant a staunch defence of academic freedom in the face of increasing censorship and a climate of intellectual fear. For students, it meant evening classes, an open structure of instruction and the ability to engage in inquiry despite exclusion from the other universities of the time. A fascinating legacy even before it became a refuge for forces of critique fleeing Fascist Europe.

Now there is a new New School. A New College in fact. A.C. Grayling, Richard Dawkins, Ronald Dworkin and Peter Singer (yes, Peter Singer), amongst others, have inaugurated this new space for privatised inquiry. Tuition fees will be £18,000 a year. While the original New School aimed for “an unbiased understanding of the existing order, its genesis, growth and present working”, the New College gives you the skills “needed for success in this complex and competitive world”. There will be courses in how to do slick presentations and on effective working-with-others. Ironically enough, there will also be instruction in ‘applied ethics’ and ‘critical thinking’ (will education and the public good be topics of study I wonder?). The TV-friendly, rent-a-theory Professoriate glistens, although it seems unlikely that many classes will actually be taken by Niall Ferguson and Steven Pinker (visiting Professors only). Many other stars already hold other posts. And a closer look indeed reveals that ‘conveners and other teaching staff’ might bear somewhat more of the teaching load than advertised.

Four heads of major private schools sit on the Advisory Board. Intriguingly, the formal academic entry requirements seem rather low. Some funds are available for those from more deprived backgrounds (news reports suggest around 20% of entrants will get some kind of ‘assisted place’), but otherwise there is just some loose talk about ‘using a tuition fee loan’, although I assume this won’t be on the preferential rates and deferral plans available through the more antiquated public institutions. As Martin McQuillan intimated, it also seems that Grayling et al. have some inside info on the forthcoming White Paper, at least enough to calculate that their fees-and-hand-outs combination will not be penalised by standards on access and equality for degree-granting institutions (since it also seems that qualifications from the New College will count as endorsed by the University of London).

This is the hour for the experiment; and London is the place…

Which is all by way of saying that New College represents a new stage in business ontology. Today the public provision of humanities is framed again and again as unsustainable, unproductive and antiquated. London Met, which educates more black and ethnic minority students than the whole Russell Group combined, is facing the closure of 70% of its undergraduate courses, predominantly drawn from its humanities and arts provision, all overseen by a political elite who received their free educations in cognate subjects. UK higher education is systematically and chronically under-funded thanks to a governing class that has been spending less on schooling and free inquiry than any of its ‘competitors’ for several decades now. There is nothing natural about the emergence of a market which will bear the dubious pricing of Grayling’s project, and no objective need for the fresh sources of private investment that he cites as somewhere in support of the endeavour. We do indeed need ‘a new model’, but not this one.