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A.C. Grayling’s new venture undermines education

Anyone walking past Chichester 1 in the evening of last Wednesday, 2 November would have been staggered at the interruption of the customary quietude on campus.

That evening, an illustrious guest speaker was met with student rage when preparing to give a lecture as part of the Martin Wight Memorial Lecture series.
Indignant students disrupted the lecture with chants and speeches accusing the lecturer of participating in a project to commodify education.

The speaker in question was Linda Colley, Professor of History at Princeton University, now more importantly known on campus as a member of AC Grayling’s New College of the Humanities’ stardom professoriate.

Last June, renowned philosopher AC Grayling let the British public know of his higher education project, a for-profit private institution that promises excellence through Oxbridge style one-to-one tutorials and celebrity teaching staff.

While Grayling, who enjoyed a free University degree at Sussex, claims the project to be merely a much needed additional resource for humanities teaching in the UK, others, including students and staff at Sussex, see it as an attack on public higher education.

Indeed, the NCH is not only an attack on public education; it is an assault on the very principle of education, and a dishonest, misleading project. Humanities subjects in higher education are facing devastating funding cuts, with the removal of entire teaching budgets from certain departments.

As a result, many universities will not be able to afford to keep some of their humanities courses on offer. London Metropolitan University, with a high proportion of working class and black and ethnic minority students, is facing a 70% cut to its undergraduate course portfolio, which has resulted in the loss of subjects such as philosophy and history.

As a result the university is being forced to vocationalise its course offer, which limits the study choices of lower income students who enter into higher education. This is becoming a trend in other universities, predominantly in those outside of the research-intensive Russel or 1994 Groups.

Grayling defends his for-profit project as a service to the teaching of the humanities, now that their funding is being slated by the Con-Dem government – but what kind of service is this?

Institutions like the NCH will further increase the gap created by the government’s cuts to education between those who can afford to study humanities subjects and those who have to consider “value for money” when picking a degree; a gap between those who will – more likely than not – select a vocational subject degree (which, a propos, has been shown not to have a direct link with employability) rather than a more critical-minded one.

The NCH will welcome a small elite who can afford to pay £18,000 of tuition fees per academic year to have Oxbridge-style instruction.
So yes, Grayling is ensuring that, despite government cuts, humanities are still taught in the UK at a high level – provided that you can pay good money for it.

The destruction of Robin’s principle – that university places “should be available to all who are qualified for them by ability and attainment”, that is Grayling’s concept of a favour to universities.

Prospective students are being misled by the unclear statements  the new educational institution. The New College has been promoted as having been co-founded by Grayling, Richard Dawkings, Peter Singer, Linda Colley, amongst 9 other famed academics.

Surprisingly, some of them have subsequently revealed to the press that their involvement in the NCH did not go beyond an agreement to lecture one hour per year at the institution.

The NCH proudly claim on their website that students will have access to world-class facilities at the (publicly subsidised) University of London, including “the exceptional library in Senate House” and “the University of London Union with its many societies and sports activities”.

It seems like their business model relies heavily on publicly funded services, while making substantial private profit. Successful NCH pupils will be awarded a degree by the University of London.

The NCH cannot attribute university degrees, because “university” is (still, in the pre-White Paper era…) a legally protected title. The College is then, at most, something of an extravagantly priced finishing school. It is also important to note that University of London academics, namely from the universities of  Birkbeck, Goldsmiths and Royal Holloway accused the New College of the Humanities of plagiarising syllabuses from the University of London’s own web pages; Syllabuses that course convenors dedicated time and university resources to, at public expense.

In a letter that Grayling’s ex colleagues from Birbeck University wrote to The Guardian (14 June 2011) it read “the NCH is at the vanguard of the coalition’s assault on public education. (…) Far from serving to improve quality or defend the humanities, this opportunistic venture will hasten the decline of the reputation for excellence that British universities, as public institutions, have fought so hard to establish.”

Universities are public institutions for scholarship, research and the dissemination of knowledge. If the NCH is allowed to succeed it will undermine the character and ethos of university education.

This Wednesday the 16th, the Student’s Union Council is going to be discussing a motion entitled “No to the New College of the Humanities”. If it passes, the Students’ Union will be mandated to support student and staff action against the NCH, and to publicly condemn the project. The council is meeting at 14:30 in Arts A4 on the 16th of November. Only school councilors and elected representatives can vote, but everyone is welcome to discuss the issues.

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