Reaction to AC Grayling’s New College of the Humanities

I am in England right now and the debate over the New College of the Humanities has reached fever pitch. Britain only has a couple of private universities, including Buckingham.   The philosopher AC Grayling has set up a  new, private  humanities college (not really a ‘university’ – it has no students or decent facilities yet) in Bedford Square, London, funded from fees of £18,000 a year. Supporters of public higher education like Terry Eagleton have gone ballistic about this. The issue for them is a) it is private and b) it will cost a lot. A third contextual factor, c) is the rising cost of education to the student in the UK, now set to reach £9,000 a year for many university degrees following the withdrawal of central government funding in 2012 for arts and humanities undergrads (funding that has kept costs down so far to around £3,300 max until now). Grayling is seen as having broken ranks from the protester’s demands to ‘save’ public education from market forces and reduce costs to reasonable levels. The misery (see Vernon) affecting British Universities has only really kicked in since 2008, and many feel they need all the help from central government that they can get.

Of more concern to me was that the professors listed as teaching are not abandoning their existing jobs at all (except for Grayling) and thus they are only available to students during the hours or days they are in London and willing to work. I was  expecting to see a long list of hired academic staff, but the list of those is currently very short.  On the issue of fees – I am afraid £18,000 is almost what an international student would pay for full time study at our university in Australia. (Australian dollar is currently very strong).  Brits are not accustomed to these sorts of fees, which are also commonplace in North American private institutions.  In the unit I run in Australia, we are simply not allowed to profit from our students and all revenue is closely managed and kept by those responsible for the teaching, to pay for basic costs. For that price, which is unremarkable in decent research and teaching universities, you get access to an actual university.

In sum, the New College has attracted a bad press for the wrong reasons – mainly the fee issue. More important is the issue of how, exactly, teaching will occur and how it will be delivered. This is a ‘quality’ question. We wait to see and, since the College says they will make a loss in the early years, the jury is out as to whether it will succeed in the long term.

Will it? I have had experience of this. I was at the University of Arizona when the closure of its small and innovative public liberal arts college offshoot, Arizona International College, was announced after five years, well before it had consolidated its programs. There are parallels that Grayling would be wise to look into.  The pretext for closure was budget cuts. Jobs were lost. Here is a section for an article in the CHE that documents the closure.  

U. of Arizona Closes Experimental College. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Vol. 48, Iss. 10; pg. A.33 2001.

 “The University of Arizona announced in October that it would close its experimental liberal-arts college, Arizona International College, because of cuts in state support.

… “My reaction is one of disappointment, I guess,” said David C. Gnage, the interim dean of the college. “I’ve been involved with AIC since its beginning, but I realize this is a very difficult situation.”

The college opened in the fall of 1996 as a liberal-arts alternative to the state’s three traditional state institutions. Its unconventional curriculum allowed students to devise their own “learning contracts” and professors to teach in teams. To graduate, students were required to demonstrate proficiency in six fields of study, including critical thinking and computer technology. ……

Officials [at the UofA] say they expect the college’s closing will help them meet a $14-million budget cut they face.

Other factors that officials cited as leading to the decision to close included the fact that almost 50 percent of the college’s students transferred to the main campus before their sophomore year and that a majority of AIC students relied substantially on university courses outside the college.”

I am not sure commentators on the London College debate have hoisted in some of the parallels, since AIC would not be known to them.  The invective that had already been directed towards AIC in the 90s for its unconventional approach,  made it a target for cuts – and the lack of tenure for its faculty helped the process of shutting it down. Sad.

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