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.

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16 Comments on “Higher education, higher quality, for profit? Or what?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Hmmm, it doesn’t read as being too outlandish. £18,000 won’t put them into the FT100 anytime soon. And I suspect it’s about correct, when you add the fees to all grants and exchequer votes, that the other Uni’s are now getting.
    Why though, do I get the feeling that you are in for a major shock and that this grouping are about to reap a very rich harvest.
    What would happen if the money followed the student. Where your ancillary income was a function of your student body.
    On a management question. I cannot see a better motivation than cash to keep that number of huge egos in line.

  2. iainmacl Says:

    Indeed as you know the twittersphere and the Guardian letters pages are abuzz. The other objection that many people have is that a number of the so called ‘professoriate’ of this institution have in the past spoke out strongly against privatisation and student fees. Steve Jones for example describing private education as a cancer on the system. So part of the reaction is one of great disappointment over this turn of events.

    The other concern it raises is that this institution is largely taking the off-the-shelf courses from the University of London International Programme (which have been written by staff in the public sector) and getting the students to enrol as external students, taking UofL examinations at a price that is considerably higher than the £1500 that registration costs.

    In addition, it is highly dependent on the students being able to use the facilities of UofL colleges across the city since it doesn’t of course have its own Library, student union, accommodation or even lecture and teaching venues. In other words it is totally dependent on an effective subsidy from the state funded institutions rather than being a fully independent institution in its own right.

    • Al Says:

      Did Mary Harney help design it?
      I believe it is called co-location!

      • Mark Dowling Says:

        Al, that was my reaction too. I’m all for educational innovation but the only innovation going on here is leveraging State resources to part fools from their money for purely private profit, since if the co-location fiasco taught us anything in Ireland it is that private partners of State institutions tend to be terrible bill payers.

        Of course, some of the more OTT reaction on this issue is personality driven. The likes of Dawkins and Ferguson do tend to invite kneejerk reactions.

        What I find amusing is that academics who usually complain about being underpaid are reacting to this by deeming those who would take a job at a 25pc higher rate as “moneygrubbers”.

  3. Dan Says:

    This is going to be interesting…will, do you think, Richard Dawkins or Ronald Dworkin have to prepare lecture handouts, grade essays, deal with hundreds of emails every week, sit on numerous committees and deal with endless admin?….or will they just have to do the pleasant stuff, giving lectures and meeting students?

    • Dan Says:

      No, the Guardian reports that the students in their intensive courses will not have their tutorials with ‘the star lecturers’ but with a ‘professional teaching staff’ that is currently being recruited…

  4. Fred Says:

    Will these academics mostly maintain their position in their other universities? If yes then what’s their risk in this project especially if the college uses the Uni of London assets? Or maybe it’s all about money?

  5. Jilly Says:

    There appears to be just one female academic involved in this venture. This is by FAR and away not the most important point to make about it, but it is intriguing, nevertheless.

  6. iainmacl Says:

    It’s a shame really, but it looks very much like AC Grayling and co seem to want to have the ‘Mastership’ of a College and maintain the notion of elite and tradition and coming close to retirement with no offer on the table from anywhere in Oxford or Cambridge…….

  7. Dan Says:

    What’s laughable about this is, that it is presented, in the Guardian at least, somewhat regretfully by Grayling, as a response by horrified academics to the govt.’s cuts to Humanities funding. But surely this is precisely what the Conservatives would have wanted – the intervention of a privately-funded (albeit massively publicly subsidized) academy into Higher Education. Indeed, surely many university managers would look at this enviously; high-profile academics that you can simply pay for courses, while much of the background teaching work is done by a lower-level, impermanent “professional reaching staff” who more than likely, will be employed on short-term contracts?

    Surely Grayling et al know that this supports, rather than challenges, the Govt.’s higher education strategy?

  8. anna notaro Says:

    *is this a Channel 4 documentary set-up. Jamie’s Highly Profitable University perhaps?* from Mark Leach’s blog post http://www.wonkhe.com/?p=629

  9. Is this not how universities started? With paying students who judged institutions on the quality of what they did? Was there a conflict between teaching and scholarship then?

    Why is there such resistance to change? Why is there such a deficit on imagination among academics? “There is an attempt here to unite the aspirations; but in the end I don’t think that works.”

    Then again, one could ask, why would academics not be prone to the same protectionist leanings as other professional groups?

    Let’s suck it and see. Keep an open mind (as you are professionally required to do).

    • Mark Dowling Says:

      Brian Mulligan, I’d be interested to hear from scholars of academic history to what extent State (and more likely Church) resources were leveraged to found these institutions. I doubt it was anywhere near as blatant or as unlikely to return a decent benefit to the leveraged as this project is. It does however open the discussion about how one could found such an institution without State support.

      The other issue arising in this debate is of course the use of “elite” in a solely pejorative way.

  10. BrianB Says:

    On looking at their website and the details of their offering, there seem to be some worrying similarities to commercial language schools in style and apparent strategy. Flash website highlighting attractive school building and location in a desirable part of a major city. Vague blandishments relating to the actual teaching staff… I wonder if the employment model for teaching staff will extend the TEFL college simile further through a significant degree of casualisation (not that this isn’t an issue in other parts of the sector)!

    • Al Says:

      There will be a lot of Arab billionaires in that part of London over the next few months. Their semi-intelligent offspring will need something to do while the West waits to restore them to power.

      • kevin denny Says:

        Al, your assumption seems to be that Arab billionaires’ kids are of low intelligence. That strikes me as rather prejudiced, even racist. Just cause they’re richer than us, doesn’t mean they are dumber.

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