Thursday, 9 June 2011

AC Grayling's New College of the Humanities – an update

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A lot has happened since I first blogged about AC Grayling's new £18,000-a-year private humanities college on Monday, so it seems appropriate to provide a quick round-up of what's happened since then.

With outrage building among students and proponents of state-funded higher education on Monday, a piece by Terry Eagleton (no stranger to locking intellectual horns with Grayling, and the two would later go toe-to-toe on Radio 3's Nightwaves) for the Guardian provided opponents with some highly-quotable ammunition to deploy in their campaign against the New College of the Humanities:
"British universities, plundered of resources by the bankers and financiers they educated, are not best served by a bunch of prima donnas jumping ship and creaming off the bright and loaded. It is as though a group of medics in a hard-pressed public hospital were to down scalpels and slink off to start a lucrative private clinic. Grayling and his friends are taking advantage of a crumbling university system to rake off money from the rich. As such, they are betraying all those academics who have been fighting the cuts for the sake of their students."
With both Birkbeck College (from which Grayling has resigned) and the University of London distancing themselves from the endeavour, other critics focused not on the private aspect of New College, but rather on the education its prospective students stand to gain. "The New College of the Humanities should be opposed because it is simply a sham," wrote legal blogger David Allen Green at the New Statesman:
"Careful attention reveals it to be just a branding exercise with purchased celebrity endorsements and a PR-driven website. The College has no degree giving powers, nor any influence over any syllabus for any of the offered degrees. The degrees that its students will study for are normal University of London degrees, which for external students can undertake at a fraction of the proposed £18,000. The College will seek access to University of London facilities, which it will presumably have to pay for at a commercial rate."
Harsh words indeed, and the heat would continue to rise as students got wind of the fact that Grayling was appearing at a debate on the future of education at Foyles bookshop in central London on Tuesday evening. According to reports, Grayling – never one to shy away from a debate – was happy to discuss the issue with his opponents and defend his position, but a raucous event was brought to premature end when a smoke bomb was let off in the room (surely a first for Foyles, or indeed any London bookstore?) Video of that here:

As the smoke cleared, Wednesday morning saw the publication of a couple of pieces in defence of Grayling. The first, by free school cheerleader Toby Young, may not be much help to Grayling in winning over his student opponents, given that it amounted to a declaration of war on "left-wing zealots", but it was a defence nevertheless:
"Remember this, Professor: We will win. Why? Because we’re right and they’re wrong. They are the prisoners of a bankrupt ideology whereas we are free thinkers. You may not have wanted to join this battle but you’re in it now and it’s a battle to the death."
The second defence, however, from respected academic Sarah Churchwell, may have been more welcome. While not coming out in favour of Grayling's initiative, Churchwell called on opponents to at least give the New College a chance:
"UK universities are in a parlous state, as anyone who works in them will tell you. The NCH is trying something different; the nation is rushing not merely to judgment, but to tarring and feathering. The NCH may indeed prove "odious", as Eagleton thinks; if it further erodes the already fragile condition of UK humanities – and their availability to any able student regardless of financial means – I will oppose it as fiercely as anyone. But shall we learn more about what it hopes to achieve, and how it proposes to achieve it, before we greylist, boycott or hang its academics in effigy?"
 Away from the comment pages, though, New College suffered a fresh blow as the Guardian revealed that some of the star academics involved, particularly historians David Cannadine and Linda Colley, haven't exactly made deep commitments to the project:
"Two of the star academics signed up to AC Grayling's new £18,000-a-year private undergraduate college will only teach for an hour each in the first year, the Guardian has learned. Linda Colley, a leading historian of Britain, empire and nationalism, and her husband, Professor Sir David Cannadine, an expert in British history 1800 to 2000 – both based at Princeton University – have taken equity stakes in the New College for the Humanities, but will deliver only one lecture each in the first academic year, Grayling confirmed."
There was also criticism from within Britain's higher education establishment, with the government pointing out that New College does not yet have the right to refer to itself as a "university" and the warden of New College, Oxford (founded: 1379) saying he is "not very pleased" with the name Grayling has chosen for his initiative.

As we move into Thursday, defence from within the commentariat continues, with the Guardian's Deborah Orr asking why people are afraid of New College:
"What, exactly, do people fear from this new private establishment? The University of Buckingham has operated since the 1970s, and has not yet ousted Oxbridge. There's no great likelihood that Grayling's institution will have massive significance either. People from rich families will be offered further choice in their higher-education, in a small adjustment to already choice-laden lives. Big deal. At least they'll be spending their money on something worthwhile, that could even, just possibly, improve their understanding of the world."
I'll leave the round-up there for now. We're lining a comment piece up for the new issue of New Humanist, which we're working on now, but for the time being I'll hand things over to you – how do you feel about New College? Has your view changed since the news broke on Sunday? Please do share your comments.

Update: The latest development is that protesters are planning to confront Richard Dawkins about the issue tonight at a BHA event he's appearing at with the blogger PZ Myers. And Anne Mroz, editor of Times Higher Education, has called New College "a scheme that would make a second-hand car salesman proud".
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