Can AC Grayling justify the academic rationale behind his new private university?
Criticism of the expensive, elite liberal arts university ‘New College of the Humanities’ has been abundant in the press over the last few years, ever since its Founder and Master Anthony (A.C.) Grayling quit his Professorship at Birkbeck College, University of London in 2010. There are issues with funding and underlying motivation that have been discussed ad nauseam – Grayling himself has been known to get cross with the media’s obsession with fees at the expense of coverage on academic character. There are other matters, however, including the nature and form of undergraduate study, and the atmosphere that comes with relatively high tuition fees, that have been neglected somewhat; admittedly this is generally because Grayling is right, too much focus has been placed on the material value of an NCH degree vis-à-vis its (barely) publically funded rivals in the mainstream UK higher education sphere.
The Humanities Undergraduate
An interview with the Guardian in October of this year displayed some interesting dimensions of Grayling’s rationale. Perhaps the most revealing, and also rather ill-informed, was his academic argument in favour of developing a liberal arts programme: his fear for the future of undergraduates, forced to specialise and make career-motivated choices on degrees and modules within a sphere of poorly-funded humanities departments. It is true that funding for the humanities across the UK has fallen in recent years, and it is therefore probable that resources, especially human, have been stretched. However, the specialisation argument is flawed on two accounts. Firstly, NCH itself continues to specialise its undergraduates, given the nature of the University of London International Programme degrees that it borrows; even if the college then provides its own ‘diploma’ as a technically-unrecognised addition (such recognition cannot be judged as of yet, as there are no NCH graduates to survey).
Secondly, academic specialisation in the humanities is not actually a problem in UK universities. Or at least, it shouldn’t be, if one treats undergraduates with an ounce of respect and grants them a similar amount of agency. It is, for example (using those options available to NCH students as full degrees and contextual modules) fundamentally impossible to study history without politics, or vice-versa; likewise it is impossible to study economics without philosophy. It is simply naïve to consider that by undertaking a single-subject degree, an undergraduate will receive just one plane of academic glass through which to analyse the world. On the contrary, they will have a grounding in one viewpoint (and the sub-fields of the humanities and social sciences are viewpoints, and not separate disciplines, after all) and an understanding of its connections to other viewpoints. True, students at public universities are increasingly tasked with forming these connections themselves. Perhaps Grayling is simply attempting to force his students instead. This idea of ‘forced’ education connects to his second misconception.
The School Leaver
A justification for the provision of education in a manner such as that at NCH, provided by Director of External Relations Jane Phelps, touched on her experience of the discontent of school leavers from her time as Head of Higher Education at Rugby School. NCH, both she and Grayling argue, aims to satisfy such discontent with the nature and atmosphere of UK higher education. The problem here is that the students graduating from Rugby are generally going to be a particular type of person from a particular background, and reasonably unrepresentative of most would-be undergraduates. The qualms Ms Phelps’ students had seemed to be focused along the lines of contact time and personality in the undergraduate experience. NCH effectively aims to solve these qualms by spoon-feeding its students. Whether or not this suits a particular type of person is not for this article to discern; there are however, distinct similarities between the nature of teaching at NCH and such at a public boarding school (as highlighted by the Guardian article).
Once again, this ‘problem’ simply isn’t to the scale that the management at NCH claim. Of course it is true that resources are becoming more and more stretched; but all this is doing is placing more agency on the student to make the best of their academic situation. Opportunities are always available to speak to staff, to engage with teaching and to expand one’s academic horizons beyond one’s own field and its relevant library bookshelves. It is simply the case that the ball is now well and truly in the student’s court to make these things happen, whereas perhaps there was more ‘comfort-hedging’ a few years ago. In the opinion of some, NCH, despite its own concerns with its state/private educated ratio (around 1:3), is attempting to appeal to those who wish to be shepherded through their university education rather than grasp complete freedom and risk the real experience of the publically funded undergraduate degree.
Grayling’s attempts to ‘try something new’ in higher education, as well as dazzle potential students with big academic names, is, perhaps, somewhat commendable. The academic rationale, which has become an essential public relations tool in light of the bad press surrounding the privatisation of education and the relatively high fees, is questionable however. Ironically, by attempting to grant undergraduate students more freedom, Grayling’s model is, to a certain extent, placing them under more restriction. By institutionalising the liberalism that should emerge naturally from an undergraduate humanities degree, he may find that his graduates are in fact less prepared for the surprisingly unregulated real world than many of their rivals from publically funded institutions. Is not agency one of the most facets characteristics of a university graduate?