I have mixed feelings about the New College of the Humanities in London announced over the weekend.
On the one hand, its easy (and very British) to knock people who try something new. But I like new ideas and I admire the enterprise. What chutzpah to start your own university!
And who wouldnt like the idea of a place where you can simply study and think and teach without all the grief of modern university life?
More, I think a little of the spice of private sector competition is a useful ingredient in overwhelmingly public soups such as higher education or the NHS. And to worry about the NEH is to succumb to a tiny distraction while the whole of our university system goes through gigantic convulsions.
On the other hand, its positioning is spooky. You can understand why a new place charging £18,000 a year would want to be mentioned in the same breath as Oxford and Cambridge. But by spinning itself this way, it has played into the biggest of the fears aroused by the current revolution in higher education in England – that the rich will colonise even further the most prestigious institutions. And that it will lend weight to the endless battle by the Russell Group to get the cap on tuition fees lifted further. Protests are already taking shape.
Yet the more I think about these aspects, the less worried I am. The NEH is reminiscent of the many liberal arts colleges that flourish in the US. Some are prestigious, most arent. But none has a hope of rivalling Harvard and Yale. In an established market like England, I dont see the NEH gaining the reputational traction it aspires to. It is demanding high grades from applicants, but what if it doesnt get them? The investors cant just say forget it then – if things go badly it could easily become known instead as a place for rich thickos. And anyway, the NEH is not a new sector. It cant be more than just one, apparently quite small, place. And it can never be more than a tiny fraction of what the Russell Group needs to win the political long game, even if you oppose its objective.
More worryingly, as of this morning, the NCH is looking a bit rushed and half baked. We have to be cautious about this because in lots of ways we dont really know what the NEH is. But a lot of the star professors are retired or semi-retired. Richard Dawkins, who seemed to be the face of it, has already distanced himself from the project – so rather than a collective of wise ones, it looks more like something that Anthony Grayling has cooked up with some City high rollers. And it seems the syllabuses have been lifted from other parts of the University of London (eg bits of History from Royal Holloway and bits of English from Queen Mary), heightening fears that the stars on the prospectus wont really get properly involved. And its not clear how students might benefit from government loans. And it wants to start taking applications in a few weeks but doesnt yet have an office lease. And it strikes me that £10 million wont go very far if the number of applications is disappointing – will students be put off by worries about its financial viability? And what are we to make of its bonus diploma? And what kind of PR machine thought that ignoring the education correspondents on the national papers would be a good idea. And, and, and…
Done right, I can see a market for the NCH. Private schools see a big one. But somehow, I dont think Grayling would publish a book with so many question marks hanging over it. Even though on the whole I wish him well and dont want to be too British about it, I have to wonder – Why apply lower standards to an entire university?