Higher education, higher quality, for profit? Or what?
A for-profit higher education institution would not be an unheard of innovation: there are lots of them all over the world. Some are quite small and, in the overall scheme of things, insignificant. Some are much larger, but do not attract attention as high value institutions that change the academic landscape. Some – and here one could mention the University of Phoenix with its pioneering online presence – do not pursue intellectual discovery or innovative scholarship, but do change the game in terms of the business model or teaching methodology. Many are respected educational institutions, but some are essentially bogus and academically suspect. Some are diploma mills. Some have aspirations to a higher standing, but the jury is out on whether they can achieve this. But until today almost all, no matter where in the world they are located, would have been considered as lesser institutions in terms of intellectual or scholarly standing; though again some have entered into linkages with universities that might give them an important status via that association.
So how should we assess the latest for-profit venture announced this week? London and Oxford Philosophy professor Anthony Grayling has announced the establishment of a new venture, to be called the New College of the Humanities, based in London. The media coverage has focused on two aspects of this venture: the £18,000 tuition fees it intends to charge, and the procession of famous academics who will provide some of the teaching – including Richard Dawkins (to provide some smart salon street cred), David Cannadine, Ronald Dworkin and others. The college will offer degree programmes, accredited by the University of London (with an add-on diploma offered by the college itself), in subjects like philosophy, economics, history and psychology. It will be run on a for-profit basis.
So what is this? An elite academic fashion parade? A movement to save the humanities, at least for the upper middle classes? A vanity project by some over-hyped academics (it’s not in Bloomsbury for nothing)? Or a genuine educational innovation? The announcement has certainly been able to ring the media register, and in many ways that is not a bad thing, as it keeps the higher education debate in focus.
It might be right to suspend judgement on this for the moment, but I am uneasy. This is not because I don’t see any room for private for-profit education, but because I don’t think this is how the intellectual high ground should be occupied. It seems inevitable that in some countries the funding model must adapt, but even then the purpose of universities should be to add to the fund of knowledge and discovery, not to add to the funds of shareholders. There is an attempt here to unite the aspirations; but in the end I don’t think that works. Or maybe I think it shouldn’t work. At any rate, I hope the announcement sparks an intelligent debate in the academic community.