Sunday, 5 June 2011

Thoughts on the New College of the Humanities

The latest news in terms of UK higher education is that there is to be a "New College of the Humanities" established in London, something that has caught the news very quickly. The New College is a private institution that is apparently for-profit but has established also a trust that has charitable status and a fifth of the places at the College will be assisted, which does not mean they will all be free. The basic fee will be £18,000 per annum which is twice the highest fee allowed in the standard state sector and some of the assisted places will have a fee cap of £7, 200 per annum whilst others will not have to pay fees. The College degrees will be treated as external awards of the University of London which will enable the students of it to borrow up to £6,000 a year in loans from the state to part-pay their fees.

A number of philosophers are involved in this initiative including the head of the College, Professor Anthony Grayling.  As Mary Beard points out many of the lead names involved with the College are getting on in years and there appears to be no initial plans for post-graduate provision though this may simply be an effect of the initial statement of the College outline. As Beard adds, the College, whilst presented as an alternative to Oxbridge also has a narrower range of subjects offered than traditional public universities and is more akin to a US liberal arts college. 

Put in the US context it is true, as Brian Leiter writes, that the fees of the new College are not high though they certainly are by UK standards. Meanwhile, others are involved in trying to organise against the College on the grounds that it effectively helps to entrench unequal access to higher education and is part of a general agenda that began with the Browne report into higher education.

The College includes an impressive roster of names though the mechanics of how they will interact with the student body is something that remains to be seen. There is no doubt that the launching of the College is part of the general move away from government underpinning of the education system though in principle its institution is not distinct from that of other universities in the country since no university is an official "state" entity here in the UK (given their autonomous status). It is distinct in being founded on the basis of private money and also in being focused so specifically on the humanities, including philosophy though this latter part is unusual in a way that I (unlike Mary Beard) don't see as bad.

The changes in the UK university system as a whole are what is most important since the undermining of research and the pressure on humanities in many universities (particularly those founded since 1992) are long-term trends that are pernicious in their effects. These trends ensure that there will be a narrower social base that engages with philosophy and humanities on the one hand and that less new work will be carried out in universities of many kinds on the other. The long-term effect of the establishment of this College, on the other hand, is hard to see as being as significant in its impact as these trends are. The College is a simple institution of privilege in the sense that the majority of its students will be there because they can pay. 

Private education is not in itself a new phenomena in Britain given the presence of so many schools here that charge fees. What we have is an extension into the university sector of a model that has had a very long life in the "Public Schools" and which replicates models of education that are far from uncommon outside the UK. This point shows the reason why the establishment of NCH is unlikely to be widely met with a fierce response (though there are sure to be protests against it) but its arrival does illustrate further the rapid fading in the UK of a university model that was, for a brief moment, open to all.

No comments: