Monday, 6 June 2011

AC Grayling launches private university for the humanities

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AC Grayling
As many of you will have seen, one of the big pieces of news to emerge this weekend is that a group of celebrity academics, spearheaded by AC Grayling, are to launch a private university for the humanities, with courses beginning in October 2012.

The New College for the Humanities, based in Bloomsbury, London, close to several of the city's universities, including University College, Birkbeck and SOAS, will charge students £18,000 per year, which is double the maximum £9,000 that public universities will be able to charge from next year. It will focus on teaching humanities, with undergraduates able to study degrees drawn from five core subjects – Law, Economics, History, English Literature and Philosophy – while also requiring students to study compulsory modules in Logic and Critical Thinking, Science Literacy, Applied Ethics and Professional Skills, emulating the broad education provided by elite universities in the United States. Degrees will be awarded by the University of London, and the college is promising students tuition to rival that provided by Oxford and Cambridge – according to its website, they will receive one-on-one tutorials in their major subjects, and "12 hours of contact with academic staff each week, compared to 4-8 hours (or even fewer) at leading British universities".

The college's senior common room, as it stands at the moment, is a who's who of celebrity academics. In addition to Grayling, who will be master of the college, the "professoriate" is made up by Simon Blackburn, David Cannadine, Linda Colley, Partha Dasgupta, Richard Dawkins, Ronald Dworkin, Niall Ferguson, Steve Jones, Lawrence Krauss, Steven Pinker, Christopher Ricks, Peter Singer and Adrian Zuckerman. The college has attracted funding from city financiers, with the founding professors all reportedly holding shares.

Understandably, the college has attracted significant criticism since news of its launch emerged in the Sunday papers. While Grayling has defended the move as a response to "the economic reality" of cuts to public humanities funding, saying "either you stand on the sidelines deploring what is happening or you jump in and do something about it", others see the college's foundation as a step towards the entrenchment of the humanities as the preserve of privileged students. While Grayling (who has previously spoken out against tuition fees) has defended the college, which will expect entrants to have three A grades at A Level or equivalent, against this charge by pointing out that more than 20 per cent of students will receive bursaries, this will still leave 80 per cent paying twice the amount demanded by Oxford, Cambridge and other leading British universities. Quoted by the Guardian, Sally Hunt, general secretary of the Universities and Colleges Union, criticised both the college and government cuts to the humanities:
"At £18,000 a go, it seems it won't be the very brightest but those with the deepest pockets who are afforded the chance. The launch of this college highlights the government's failure to protect art and humanities and is further proof that its university funding plans will entrench inequality within higher education."
One major question raised by the founding of New College concerns its relationship with the University of London. Examinations will be conducted by the university, which will then award the degrees. Of particular concern to existing students at the university (of which I am one – I study for an MA part-time at Birkbeck College) is the news that New College will apparently make use of university facilities, with its website stating that "accommodation, teaching, library, student welfare and union facilities all within easy walking distance, shared with Birkbeck College and the University of London Senate House and Students’ Union". Looking at the course descriptions, it also appears that New College will follow the University of London degree programmes very closely – for instance in my own subject, history, the New College course outline mirrors that of the University of London.

Taking all this into consideration, there is clearly an important question for the University of London to answer – given what appears to be an extremely close relationship between New College for the Humanities and the University of London, has the university effectively introduced a private college within its existing publicly-funded structure? It's a question many at the university are asking, with a group of students having already initiated a public meeting to discuss the matter.

Another question being asked about New College concerns the position it may take towards matters of religion. The professoriate contains several of the world's best-known atheists in Grayling, Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Steven Pinker, Steve Jones and Peter Singer, and so, somewhat inevitably, religious commentators are wondering whether the college is set to become an academic institution for the new atheism. The Church Mouse even asks whether it will take a fair approach towards religious believers in admissions. The latter question seems unfair – the college (or perhaps its PR firm) has been pointing out on Twitter that it "is not an atheist college", and it should be judged on its actual admissions rather than on speculation based on the professors involved. But questions about the college's academic slant do seem worthwhile – Grayling and Dawkins have long pointed out that critical thinking and greater science literacy would help counteract fundamentalist religious thinking, and both subjects are part of the diploma that all New College students will study for.

Of course, many would argue that this is no bad thing, and if a group of professors are setting up their own college, why wouldn't students at the institution pursue the form of learning that they favour? Still, these questions are interesting, and are bound to be posed. Thinking beyond the atheism/religion issue, I think it's worth wondering about the academic slant that may prevail in other subject areas. For example, a look at the nascent history faculty (David Cannadine, Linda Colley, Niall Ferguson) suggests New College is unlikely to be a hotbed of cultural history and postmodern thinking.

Still, I don't think questions around the college's academic slant are the most pressing right now – as with admissions, it will have to be judged on that count once it is up and running. The key issue for now is that of its private status and the implications for British higher education. It will be very interesting to see how this story unfolds in the coming months.

I'm keen to read all your thoughts on this – please do share in the comments.

Update: As debate over this has continued today, both Birkbeck College and the University of London have issued press releases clarifying their relationships (or rather non-relationships) with New College. Richard Dawkins has commented on his website clarifying his own role in the college, and AC Grayling has written a short comment for the Dawkins site answering some criticisms. There's an open letter going round asking Dawkins not to get involved.
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