It was reported in the Sunday papers that A.C. Grayling is setting up a new university in the mould of the American liberal arts colleges – and charging £18,000 per year in fees. He’s attracted some of the UK’s best-known academics – Richard Dawkins, Niall Ferguson et al – the lineup reads like a fantasy university teaching league. Based in London’s brain; Bloomsbury, the venture (a bone fide David Willetts fantasy) is bound to draw significant interest. Grayling has stated that he wants his new university to rival Oxbridge – though there are a number of reasons why he might struggle to provide genuine competition with the ancients.
For a start, the first year’s intake will be limited to 200 students – possibly rising further to 300 or so in the future. On one hand, this might provide an intimate learning environment, but on the other, it will be smaller than most Oxbridge colleges. And not nearly as well resourced. An Oxbridge college experience provides students with a wealth of activities, sport and politics. Not to mention the network of contacts that has served its members very well in later life. And both Oxford and Cambridge teach a far broader range of subjects, making for a rich academic community. As Mary Beard rightly pointed out; it’s good for physicists to have classicists around, and visa versa. New College of the Humanities could suffer from the narrowness of its teaching.
And Bloomsbury is lovely, particularly in the summer. But its hard to see what this merry band of privileged students will do with themselves when not being enthralled by the celebrity line-up. There’s a partnership with the University of London and ULU to share learning and social facilities in London. But that won’t feel very special – particularly after having paid such a hefty fee.
The New College of the Humanities also turns the notion of prestige on its head, in the most intriguing way. If we’re honest, the way we measure prestige is intimately linked with the amount and quality of research that takes place at any given institution. New College of the Humanities might have some star academics, but it seems unlikely that they’ll take their work over to a brand new institution without a research infrastructure – particularly as the famous Profs don’t have much trouble publishing things these days. Yet few could deny that the venture carries with it the whiff of prestige. Even if it leaves behind a faintly elitist after-smell.
There could well be a place for this sort of institution in the UK HE market. It could be that there 200-300 straight A students with the funds available, and the motivation to jump at something like this. But in the cold light of day, many still might want jobs when they graduate. And there’s nothing that AC Grayling can say to applicants this year that could demonstrate why his university will be any more likely to drive them to the world of successful employment than one of those cheapo 9k-a-year sausage factories he so disdains.
In the mean time it all looks a little bit too like a Channel 4 documentary set-up. Jamie’s Highly Profitable University perhaps? Cha-ching.