This morning the BBC ran a report on a new private college being set up under the auspices of the University of London and boasting a faculty of fourteen of the biggest names in academia. While the Spectator reflexively twitched at the prospect (the right’s favorite private parts are always former public assets), Cambridge’s Mary Beard, writing in the Times, offered a much more cautious take. I feel that Beard does not go nearly far enough. The privatization of Oxbridge is likely inevitable, and indeed, given the mismanagement of the British higher education sector by all three major parties, there is little compelling reason why the universities should not regain their pre-twentieth century independence. By the same reasoning, there is no reason why privately endowed colleges should not offer liberal arts degrees at lower cost, given the rigging of the public university sector’s budget in favor of the physical sciences. But the New College of the Humanities does not defend the humanities by offering them to a wider audience at a more affordable price. Instead, it appears to be little more than a well-endowed mechanism for augmenting the salaries of already successful career academics while tutoring the very rich in classrooms unsullied by the presence of the underclass.
What immediately jumps out at me, and which Beard notices as well, is that the college will effectively be borrowing its faculty from other universities while they maintain their existing employment there. It is safe to say that some fees-paying student is going to be shorted by this arrangement. Either Sir David Cannadine will be teaching at Princeton or in London during semester time, but he assuredly won’t be doing both, and any student at either institution paying fees with the expectation that he will be is in for a surprise. A common truth in academia is that the busier and more successful the researcher, the less face time he has with undergraduates. The New College doesn’t seem like a model for pedagogy so much as it is for these very successful intellectuals to further isolate themselves from the unpleasant business of teaching undergraduates. It is easy to imagine the New College becoming the finishing school for those well-heeled for whom even Oxbridge is not exclusive enough.
Likewise, Beard correctly points out that, by only teaching undergraduates, the New College will not participate fully in the intellectual life of wider academia. To some degree, I think that the advantages of the liberal arts college environment outweight the disadvantages of not having graduate students, and, given that the faculty will retain their seats at Oxbridge and the Ivy League, graduate students of sufficient merit will still have the opportunity to be supervised by them. They will also continue to make the public contributions that have earned them fame. So overall I don’t think that this is a negative.
What should be considered a negative is that the New College will make no substantive contribution to the health of the overall field. Cost, namely the cost of humanities students’ tuition fees subsidizing those of science students’, as well as the termination of public funding for humanities research and teaching grants while those of science continue, are the main threat to the survival of the humanities in British academia. A constructive use of the New College would be to offer at-cost humanities degrees, which could conceivably be offered at several thousand pounds a year less than the new state tuition fees rate of £9,000 p.a. The New College makes no attempt to meet that demand – the demand of the Holy Market – and instead reinforces existing trends by charging twice what state universities do. Indeed, the Guardian notes that the New College will be run for a profit rather than seek the charitable status that even Oxbridge continue to abide by.
Students at the New College can look forward to paying twice as much for a course of instruction in which their all-star professors will presumably dodge instructional responsibilities while tending to their research and responsibilities at their home institutions. Without graduate students, the bulk of the teaching will presumably be shifted onto the at-will workforce of tutors and adjuncts that has come to characterize American higher education. The New College for the Humanities should be seen as a highly regressive development in British academia, one that even the elites at Oxbridge should be appalled by.
UPDATE: The Facebook group opposed to the New College has pointed out that, even as the for-profit institution charges £18,000 to line the pockets of its faculty and donors, it will be using the information resources of the University of London, including its libraries, to make that profit. The amount of compensation it is offering the public, non-profit University, if any, remains undisclosed.