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June 21, 2011

New College, Old Story

Whatever you think of private universities, AC Grayling's proposed new 'university' will be a sparkling exemplar compared with those offered by private providers poised to enter the UK market now that students may have access loans and fees underwritten by the British tax payer. 

I have nothing against private universities. Some of my best friends and intellectual heroes work in private universities. Last time I looked Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Duke, Emory, Notre Dame were all still private institutions; they just don’t happen to be in this country. The reason to be bothered at all about Anthony Grayling’s New College for the Humanities is not that it is private but that it is not a university. A university would teach undergraduates, postgraduates, and doctoral students across a broad range of disciplines in a research community to ensure the transmission of disciplinary knowledge and competence. This is not what Grayling is doing. However, it needs to be said amongst all the sound and fury generated by the founding of NCHum, that compared to many of the arrangements that exist between mainstream universities in the UK and private providers both at home and abroad, Professor Grayling’s institution looks to be at the more ethical, quality end of the spectrum.

It would be therapeutic for those currently throwing brickbats at Grayling to investigate what franchise agreements, foreign campuses, and external validations their own institutions are running: I am sure they would be surprised. The difference is that such arrangements seldom result in a £18,000 per year price tag on an undergraduate degree. However, similar partnerships are likely to become more common as increasing numbers of private providers enter the UK market now that their students will be allowed to access the loans and fees system that will be under-written by the British tax payer. These privateers do not have degree awarding powers, with the exception of BPP granted ‘university college’ status by David Willets despite their parent company the Apollo Group being serially prosecuted in the US for false advertising and accounting. The privates therefore are keen to partner-up with universities and Vice-Chancellors fearing competition from cheaper providers are keen to enter into mutually beneficial alliances. In the case of NCHum as many questions have to be asked of the University of London as they do of Grayling.: by which collegiate committee process was this arrangement subject to scrutiny and due diligence? How much of the £18K fee will Royal Holloway receive for validating the History degree at NCHum? How much will Goldsmiths receive from the use of their English Literature programme? Will the University of London examiners approve this use of the external degree, written for off-shore students, as fit for purpose for NCHum students able to use the Senate House library and all the amenities of Bloomsbury?

If a Swiss private equity firm were to give me millions of dollars to set up a humanities programme in the world’s most cosmopolitan city, it would not look like this. Grayling’s College based on a tutorial system taught by unknown youth with lectures from fourteen, old-but-been-on-the-telly equity partner professors, offers an educational model more suited to the eighteenth-century than the twenty-first. There is little in the way of cutting-edge work in the humanities to be found amongst its programmes and staff. The graduate programme of the New School for Social Research was set up in New York with private money from the Rockerfeller Foundation and Jewish émigrés fleeing Nazi persecution in Europe. Its founding faculty included Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno: importantly it was a university not an undergraduate teaching franchise and its avant garde contribution to the global academy has been immense.

Grayling’s critics are correct to say that he and his crew should be putting their obvious talents and energies into defending the public education in the UK rather than, at the first opportunity, riding the wave of a deregulated market while blaming the cuts for forcing them into it. It is foolish to guess at the personal motivations of individuals such as Professor Grayling, there are many less famous academics doing exactly the same thing at this moment and no doubt there will be more in the future. However, a more general question arises for me from this venture: who owns a university? The answer is complex. We speak too easily of the ‘corporatisation’ of academia but traditional universities are not corporations with shareholders to be paid. If the humanities in the UK have been privatised it is in the sense that the funding of a humanities degree is now the matter of an arrangement between a university provider and a private individual borrowing money, in principle the state has no strategic interest in the humanities, they are not deemed a ‘priority ’. Vice Chancellors do not own universities nor do the staff and certainly not the fee-paying students. In a suitably complex way all universities in the UK are in fact private institutions. They are not part of the public sector and academics are not civil servants: the Minister cannot control Vice Chancellors’ pay or dictate the curriculum. In reality, UK universities have always been private institutions with only one client, the state who asked them to teach a set number of students every year. The taught masters market in the UK, for example, has in fact been a free market of up-front fees and student choice for years.

We are now moving in the UK to the model of a university as a traded service to voucher holding school leavers, in which NCHum is only tinkering for the socially elite at the edges of an enormous sector. The threat posed by the concentration of research funding in a select group of institutions (as promised by the REF and the present RDP review) will do more damage to the principle of the ‘comprehensive’, broad disciplinary UG to PG University than Grayling’s side show ever will. These are the things to get angry about not TV fops who should learn from Jessie J that if you are a philosopher, ‘its not all about the money, money, money… we just want the world to dance, forget about the price tag’.

Martin McQuillan is the Dean of Arts and Social Sciences at Kingston University, London.


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'In the case of NCHum as many questions have to be asked of the University of London as they do of Grayling.: by which collegiate committee process was this arrangement subject to scrutiny and due diligence?'

Just for clarity, organisations that wish to teach the University of London International Programme do not have to make any arrangements with the University to do so, unless they want to be added to the list of recognised institutions (http://www.londoninternational.ac.uk/study_ep/countries/index.shtml). Grayling Hall is not a 'recognised institution', so there is no agreement with or by University of London.

A bit off-topic but this is very important: University of Wales: 'Damning' QAA report on links

The University of Wales is well known for making its money out of validating overseas courses, many of them dodgy; so the QAA's report doesn't come as a surprise.

But we can expect to see more of this kind of thing in future - especially when the government's restrictions on student visas come into force.

No longer able to make money by overcharging foreign students in Britain, universities may decide to make money by overcharging them over there...

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