Posted tagged ‘New College of the Humanities’

Odious aberration, or a solution to the higher education crisis?

June 10, 2011

Now that a couple of days have passed since philosopher Anthony Grayling announced his ‘New College of the Humanities’, what are we to make of it? Certainly the noise in the system has been loud, and overwhelmingly the comments have been critical. They range from Terry Eagleton’s view that the venture is ‘odious’, to the comment by Times Higher Education editor, Ann Mroz, that that it was a ‘scheme that would make a second-hand car salesman proud.’ Mind you, there has also been a spirited defence of the project by one of its newly hired lecturers.

So why all the vitriol? Grayling himself has suggested it is because his venture has become an iconic symbol for all those things about which the beleaguered academic community feels so angry, including funding cuts and the end of government support for the humanities. There may be an element of truth in this, but then again there would probably have been less anger if the project did not so directly engage the new thinking that, as far as anyone can tell, underpins the British government’s higher education policies. Grayling has also suggested, rather bizarrely, that his venture was established as a for-profit enterprise because he and his colleagues didn’t have enough time to set up a charity. Anyway it would have to be said that the presence of Swiss private investors amongst the shareholders makes it unlikely that a not-for-profit corporate structure was considered.

Maybe those of us on the sidelines should stand back and wait to see what this initiative turns out to be like. Maybe it will do what its founders suggest, which is to save the academic humanities while also giving at least some disadvantaged students an opportunity to enjoy the very best education.

The problem is that higher education, in a number of countries and particularly England, is a wounded animal with the vultures hovering nearby. There are many people who doubt that the framework under which it is being asked to operate is a viable one, and one prospect that seems at least plausible is that private for-profit institutions will be the major beneficiaries of the changes and will grow substantially in significance. In that setting all sorts of things become uncertain, including the vitality of research, the growth of postgraduate education and the capacity of the system to tackle educational disadvantage.

It is not, as Grayling suggests, that people are becoming over-excited about a small educational experiment; it is that in England the whole higher education system has become an experiment with very unclear objectives and tricky prospects. Launching a commercial higher education project into this landscape was never going to be something that produced easy applause. And Grayling and his team of academic star turns have been around long enough to know that. Or so you’d think.



Higher education, higher quality, for profit? Or what?

June 6, 2011

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.