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June 06, 2011

Is the New College of the Humanities a good thing?

I have mixed feelings about the New College of the Humanities in London announced over the weekend.

On the one hand, it's 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 wouldn't 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 aren't. But none has a hope of rivalling Harvard and Yale. In an established market like England, I don't see the NEH gaining the reputational traction it aspires to. It is demanding high grades from applicants, but what if it doesn't get them? The investors can't 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 can't 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 don't 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 won't really get properly involved. And it's not clear how students might benefit from government loans. And it wants to start taking applications in a few weeks but doesn't yet have an office lease. And it strikes me that £10 million won't 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 don't think Grayling would publish a book with so many question marks hanging over it. Even though on the whole I wish him well and don't want to be too British about it, I have to wonder - Why apply lower standards to an entire university?


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"What chutzpah to start your own university!"

I'm going to have to disagree slightly here. For a start this isn't, in any way, a university. It's exactly the same as the currently existing private sector business schools which already operate in the UK and deliver external degrees from other institutions.

These degrees can just be pieced together by sales people/marketers who are not qualified to do the job and validated by either Uni of London or Uni of Wales or whichever university is willing to do the job. I have seen and even-for my sins-been involved in this process before. In my case, the salespeople & marketers were unable to listen to reason and I fail to see why that wouldn't be the case here.

All that said, though, those who are baulking at University of London's involvement in this do need to wise up. This practice has been going on for years. Most university validation agreements contain a stipulation that the private sector students can "use their facilities", mostly as a gimmick to sell to international students and justify lack of investment in those areas of the college (an example, how would a college in London be able to give it's students physical access to the Uni of Wales libraries?), which brings to mind where these students will be sourced? Have they got their Tier 4 license yet? It will be interesting to see what the international/domestic split will be later on.

I am absolutely and completely against these sorts of schemes as I have seen and worked within colleges just like this and know that the glitz and glamour advertised regularly masks student dissatisfaction, poor quality and poor management.

I hope I'm wrong, but would be very surprised if I was.

I largely agree with your points William. I find it hard to condemn at this stage. The details look very ropey indeed, but if people are happy to pay the high fees then I think this will be a fascinating and worthwhile experiment - particularly if a HE Bill leads to greater liberalisation and big increase in this sort of provision.

And looking at the independent school sector is very useful - as many of the same drivers are in play both on parental/applicant side and provider ethos.

I posted some other random incomplete musings on Wonkhe last night - http://goo.gl/ge7GY

The best post I've seen on this is at Crooked Timber http://crookedtimber.org/2011/06/06/if-youre-an-egalitarian-how-come-youre-trying-to-sell-an-undergraduate-arts-degree-that-costs-more-than-an-mba/. As Newell says, there isn't anything very new, interesting or exciting about this project really. Regents already fills this niche http://www.bacl.ac.uk/courses/admissions/course_fees.aspx so another entrant on a smaller scale isn't all that exciting.

@Newell I find your report of what it's like to launch a new college genuinely disturbing. I suppose Grayling would say his new place will be nothing like that, but then you are seeing parallels in the way the syllabuses have been put together...

@Andrew Thanks for the fascinating Regents link - previously merely somewhere I sometimes drive past...

AIUI, the syllabus detail pulled from elsewhere is because, as they are teaching Uni of London degrees, they have the same syllabus.

That's on the phone from the Uni of London external courses office 10 minutes ago.

I've seen other places which have their own courses validated Universities - Cambridge Theological Federation and various business colleges come to mind.

Here they haven't bothered to do that, and it's just a wrapper, and the students decide whether the wrapper is worth 9k a year or not.

@Andrew Fascinated by brilliant but crazed Crooked Timber thing. I worry about their marking!

@Matt Thx. Good to have that definitive.

My other thought is that it could set a very dangerous precedent. Given its very close links to the University of London, if NCH goes well, what's to stop any Russell Group institution spinning off a liberal arts college? They could have some form of service level agreement and it could provide the same basic curriculum but charge a completely uncapped fee. Special access to the profs, enhanced contact time etc etc etc etc.

Give it a few years, and if NCH is a success and there's still no chance of the cap being lifted altogether, what's to stop them?

@Mark. If there was that much demand, it would have already happened by now. Regents and Buckingham are already in this kind of space, and neithger of them is really all that big by public HE standards.

@Andrew - yes of course but NCH is different to Regents and Buckingham in the way it leeches off a very respected ancient public institution. Peers of UoL could see opportunities for making money in this way - particularly is student numbers are cut, teaching or research money is cut further etc etc.

The NCH is NOT a univeristy. It is a private tuition enterprise preparing students to sit UoL External exams like many other 'colleges' do around the world.
The sad fact is that UoL charges around 3,000GBP for registration and exam fees in total . NCH would charge an _additional_ 54.000GBP for the occasional celebademic tutorial.
This has to be the worst educational joke of the decade.

UoL Press Release makes everything clear: http://www.londoninternational.ac.uk/media/press_releases/new_college_humanities.shtml

Grayling et al made a huge blunter. If they hadn't used NCH website to imply -using the worst marketing I've seen in years- that this college was part of the University of London, rather than simply offering tutition for the UoL External degree, he might have got away with it. But then he wouldn't have been able to charge £54,000.

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