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.