Grayling’s private college is a model of narrowing participation

Big promises, but has Grayling silenced his critics? Ian Scott

Faculty and students at the New College of the Humanities can breathe a sigh of relief – they have survived their first year.

For some, AC Grayling’s private undergraduate college is a pioneering project that is helping to emancipate higher education from the grubby hands of the state and is showing an imaginative way forward for universities in these austerity-ridden and intellectually barbarian times.

But the rest of us, gladly confined to the public university sector but preoccupied by declining UCAS applications, increased volatility, squeezed resources, rising managerialism, frozen pay and spiralling student debt, should still care what goes on at 19 Bedford Square.

This is not because one tiny institution will undermine the public university system but because, in the context of a systematic attempt on the part of government to replace public funding with private finance, the arguments that have been used to justify the existence of the NCH are significant.

We might also want to take this opportunity to examine whether the criticisms aimed at the NCH when it was first mooted back in 2011 are valid. Remember when Terry Eagleton condemned this “disgustingly elitist outfit” while former Birkbeck colleagues of its founding “master”, AC Grayling, described the NCH as being “at the vanguard of the assault on public education”? I weighed in last year arguing that it was a “privileged finishing school for those who can’t make the grade at Oxbridge”.

So how has NCH fared in its opening academic year?

The good news for its students is that, despite some fear that the “star professors”, who featured heavily in NCH marketing literature, would not show up, figures provided to The Conversation reveal that they most certainly did enter the classroom. Grayling himself did 30 lectures (surely top of the workload charts?) while Profs Vernon Bogdanor, Partha Dasgupta, Richard Dawkins and Roger Halson delivered 10, 6, 4 and 20 respectively over the year. Profs Niall Ferguson, Simon May and Anthony Seldon taught just one session each.

As has been widely publicised, NCH students are offered “intensive” teaching with ten hours of lectures, four hours of smaller seminars and one hour of personal tutorial per week. Their core areas of study are supplemented by contextual learning and a professional skills class. They are provided with careers advice, a professional development counsellor and a “Thinkery” room.

For all this (and I leave it to you to consider just how different this is to timetables in publicly-funded universities), NCH students pay nearly £18,000 a year (although more than a third of them are offered either full or partial scholarships).

There are two sets of problems with this operation: one for the NCH and one for the rest of us.

Despite a huge amount of publicity (admittedly much of it negative) the NCH only managed to recruit around 60 students this year. Given that it doesn’t have a licence to teach international students (and nor is there any immediate prospect of doing so), it is not at all clear how the college can be confident of bringing in the 1,000 students Grayling has talked about. Additionally, because its students are not entitled to government loans and grants, this is likely further to restrict numbers to those whose parents can afford the hefty payments in what I would call a perfect example of “narrowing participation”. This really is education for a small elite.

Students able to afford the NCH are offered the opportunity, as it states on its homepage, to “access exceptional academic facilities and be part of a community of 120,000 students”. This is stretching the truth just a little. Yes, NCH students are able to take advantage of University of London facilities (and curriculum of course) but they do this effectively as interlopers, as outsiders to mainstream university life, as private purchasers of public services.

This relates to the main issue for many of its critics: the NCH represents a new model of private higher education. For all Grayling’s insistence that the college is no different from any other university in having a profit-making operation, the fact is that, in this case, the not-for-profit education side is a subsidiary of a for-profit company, TES Ltd, which contains the Swiss venture capitalists who helped to fund the NCH from the beginning. As Andrew McGettigan has pointed out, unlike in public universities where any profits are used to cross-subsidise core teaching activities, at the NCH, “the money moves in the opposite direction”.

True, there are bigger private providers who represent a more pressing and substantial threat to the public university system: Pearson, Kaplan and INTO to name just a few. We know that the government is determined to reduce barriers to private sector participation in, and indeed ownership of, our universities and that public money is already being used to support private HE providers. Indeed, an excellent new pamphlet from the University and College Union on the privatisation of HE opens with a quote from Carl Lygo, the Principal of the private BPP University College who boasts: “I am very popular at dinner parties at the moment with vice-chancellors who want to know more about the private model and the alternative model.”

Last week’s austerity-driven spending review tightened the screw again on further and higher education with the freezing of student grants, cuts to the National Scholarship Programme and the raising of visa fees for international students—not that any of these will impact on the NCH of course.

Actually, that’s the point. The New College of the Humanities may be a marginal player in the wider ecology of British higher education but in its accommodation to the logic of private finance, it nevertheless provides a warning of what advocates of the public university need to face up to in the coming years. I don’t lose any sleep over the NCH but if its arguments are allowed to go unchallenged, then the rest of us are going to face an even tougher time in making a university education available and accessible to those who want one.