So then. AC Grayling is launching a private university.
For £18,000 a year, students can attend the New College for the Humanities, and study for one of a number of degree courses, under the tutelage of an impressive roster of academics, including Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker.
People have been talking about this for a couple of days now. I’ve read the BBC’s reporting of the bare facts, and the Guardian’s summary of opinions. I’ve read the New Humanist‘s cautiously optimistic questions, and a clarifying response to some of the public reaction by Grayling himself. I’ve read an open letter to Richard Dawkins asking him not to get involved, and David Allen Green describing the whole thing as a sham and another sham. [Edit: I’ve now also read Charon QC’s thoughts on the matter.]
And I still have no idea what I think about this.
My first reaction, I’ll admit, was to cringe. It’s a lot of money they’re asking, after all – double the maximum limit recently set by the government for what public universities are allowed to charge. I think my initial discomfort was at seeing the people I admire engaging in something that had the look of a profit-making venture, and wasn’t as focused as it could be on the open and public kinds of discussion that I think benefit everyone.
On reflection, though, I don’t know what I’ve suddenly got against profit-making ventures, and I’m not sure this gut reaction is at all fair. It’s not like AC Grayling and co. are money-grubbers after a quick buck who’ve decided that the best way to pad their wallets is to set up an institute of higher learning. That doesn’t stop it being a lot of money, but judging their motivations too hastily based on this one factor is a mistake.
Yes, most students wishing to attend will have to be (or have parents or other sponsors who are) substantially well-off. But one in five students they take on will be offered a scholarship, and they’re hoping to get an endowment fund in place to allow them to increase this to one in three. I don’t know how that compares to other universities around the country, but it’s a sizeable part of their intake, who’ll be getting what seems like to be a top-notch education and meaningful qualification without having to come from supremely prosperous backgrounds.
I also can’t say (because you know how I feel about research) how that proportion of public-spiritedness compares against many universities in the US, who regularly charge far more than the dollar equivalent of £18,000 per annum. I know these institutions also come with a good deal of reputation for their price, and I’m not seeking to compare NCHum to Harvard in any significant ways, but I think it’s another indicator that Grayling’s project is less stratospherically unprecedented and misjudged than some people think.
And assuming there’s no dishonesty about what’s being offered for the fees charged, why should a private group of individuals not make any such offer they like? Personally, I’m all in favour of all levels of education being made affordable to those most eager and qualified to benefit from it, regardless of background, but surely it’s the many publicly funded universities that already exist which have a greater duty to be making that happen. Places like NCHum aren’t exactly dominating the market and making sure higher education remains a rich-boys club. Especially not with a 30% scholarship intake.
So I seem to have ended up defending this new college against most of the criticism I’ve been mulling over. And yet I’m still not wild about the idea, and can’t quite articulate why. Maybe I should’ve waited a bit longer before I tried having an opinion.