A C Grayling has announced the formation of a new private college of Higher Education. The New College of the Humanities will charge fees of £18,000 and students will be taught be such renowned media dons as Grayling, Richard Dawkins, Ronald Dworkin, David Cannadine, Niall Ferguson, Steve Jones, and Peter Singer. There will be core courses in scientific literacy, applied ethics, and critical thinking, and then students will specialise in law, philosophy, economics, history, English literature, or some combination of those.
I say students will be ‘taught’ by these dons. Let’s be more specific: they’ll be given lectures by them. They won’t get one-to-one tuition from them. They won’t sit in seminars discussing their ideas with them. They won’t be marking your essays or handing out reading lists or responding to your questions by email. That will all be handled by hired teaching staff, with who knows what kind of research profile. And lectures have value in education - the group experience, the event, the demonstration of attitudes to knowledge - but they’re really not the most effective form of education. As Donald Bligh showed some time ago, after three weeks or so, students tend to retain only 10% of the key ideas in a lecture. This compares to figures like 60-70% for seminars and tutorials. So, it’s not going to be the key way that those students learn; they’re going to be getting their real education from the hired help.
In fact, are these guys even going to be employed full time? I doubt it. Grayling will have a full-time post but the rest will just be paid handsomely by the hour. They won’t be around. And bear in mind, these academics are at the end of their respective careers. In ten years time when you think it might be useful to get a reference from Richard Dawkins, your old science professor, well: good luck with that.
So this is basically a standard University of London Degree with some flashy lectures dropped on top, for £18,000 a year. Bear in mind that these are media dons, so you can actually get their teaching on YouTube and on telly. You can get just as good an education - in fact, probably better - in the public sector for half the price. Grayling has boasted that his students will get 12-13 contact hours with teaching staff per week. Wow. So do mine. But most of my students’ contact time is high-quality, in small groups. Much of the contact time at this New College will be in large anonymous lectures.
And why is A C Grayling doing this? Does he genuinely believe that these famous intellectuals will guarantee a better education? If so, he’s a fool. Does he genuinely believe that the structure of his degree is impossible to achieve in the public sector? If so, he’s ignorant. Does he genuinely believe that the time he and his colleagues spent being paid and supported by the public sector was ‘serving time’? If so, he’s contemptible. He’s doing it for the money. Clearly.
I have some questions. Apparently 20% of the places will have bursaries attached. How much will these bursaries be? Since this is a private university, will students have access to tuition fee loans, like those in the public sector? For the full amount? If so, how can the government afford it? If not, how can the students afford it? And one report says that the organisation has raised £5m of private capital. That’s really not very much for a university. Where will the students live? Where are the lecture rooms? Where are the seminar rooms? Where will admin be housed? Who will set up the computer networks? Where will the students’ spaces be? Are they parasitically using University of London facilities? And this consortium of private financiers: does this private institution have guaranteed independence for its teachers? Or will whoever pays the piper call the tune? I see the students are going to emerge with a University of London degree. When was this agreed? Why is my university lending its support from a divisive, elitist, privatised institution like this?
According to Grayling, ‘it is quite a struggle now to see into the future with how we can cope with these cuts. Either you stand on the sidelines deploring what is happening or you jump in and do something about it’. That all sounds very fine, except, Tony, you’re not jumping in; you’re jumping out.
A C Grayling, you’ve decided to become the Toby Young of the Higher Education sector. Shame on you.