Monday, 6 June 2011

AC Grayling’s Folly

Professor AC Grayling, a philosopher, has founded a College to teach the humanities to “gifted” undergraduates.

The college will be situated in Bloomsbury, just by the British Museum. It has already selected a “Professoriate” who will supposedly give over 100 lectures a year, notwithstanding almost all of them are academics at foreign universities.

In my view, almost everything about this College is an affront to the critical thinking and evidence-based approach that such an establishment should promote.

It is, in short, a sham.

First, it is not even a College in any meaningful sense.

Its students will be enrolled on University of London degrees which, it seems, they will have to apply for directly.

However, instead of the £1,000 to £2,000 a year they would expect to be charged for a University of London external degree, the “gifted” student will be expected to pay £18,000.

Who will these “gifted” students be taught by?

Reading the biographies of the “Professoriate” would suggest that few students will get much contact time with such academic celebrities.

In history, for example, the three named professors all teach mainly at American universities and have numerous other responsibilities.

In law, the two listed professors are not even authorities in any of the seven core LLB courses.

Although it would be wonderful to be taught jurisprudence (the philosophy of law) by Professor Dworkin and civil procedure by Professor Zuckerman, this will not help the student seeking tuition in contract or criminal law.

One suspects that the actual teachers of the courses are not yet even appointed.

And what does it mean to be “gifted”?

No doubt it will require a special kind of gift to want to pay £18,000 for a course which costs substantially less elsewhere in London by absentee professors who will be on television more than they will be in Bloomsbury.

However, the College’s PR advisors tell me “gifted” means:

"that, like every university, we are selective and will select students whose achievements and potential show that they can make the most of the high-quality, intensive educational experience at NCH".

An alternative view is that “gifted” simply means privileged.

This will accord with the view of Boris Johnson that this is an “Oxbridge” for those who cannot get into Oxford or Cambridge.

And it is not even clear if the College is a business or a charity.

Perhaps they do not know themselves.

This is not a College but a branding exercise: the use of big academic names to gloss straightforward London University degrees and charge the courses out at five times the cost using the same facilities.

Almost all the contentions made on the College’s website are misconceived, or do not seem to be substantiated.

All this is clear with the application of the critical thinking and an evidence-based approach which the humanities should actually promote and celebrate.

This College is not any academic breakthrough.

This College does nothing real to help the humanities in this country.

It is instead AC Grayling’s Folly.


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AndrewFinden said...

Looks like little more than an Atheist version of those Evangelical Universities they have in the US.

New Atheist College it should be called, with the announce line-up!

@kevfrost said...

Who will be explaining that to be a (wo)man, they need to be able to "bear to hear the truth...spoken, twisted by knaves yo make a trap for fools"?

Maxine said...

Amusing post, thank you - so they won't be picking up rich people who just fail to get into a Russell Group university then?

AllanW said...

Erm I’m hoping your righteous indignation is misplaced in this instance David. This ‘college’ will be providing a socially useful service, that of parting wealthy people from substantial amounts of that wealth for the service of ‘educating’ their dim offspring and all without usurping a place at a proper university. So meritorious but penurious normal folk get a slightly but perceptibly better chance of achieving a good education at a proper seat of learning, wealthy people have to pay substantially more for babysitting services for a number of years (you know, those awkward years between paying through the nose for private education and having the sprog cock-up some parts of your company when they join the Firm) and the wealthy get stiffed for lots of dosh in the meanwhile. Looks like a winner all round to me. Bravo A.C.!

mariawolters said...

I know I'm repeating myself, but I do not see ANY provision for teaching foreign languages and cultures. This is an atrocious omission. Not only is the study of other languages, cultures, and societies a key area of the humanities. Intercultural competence is also needed to deal with the international, multicultural, globally connected world we live in. A College of the Humanities that teaches neither languages nor area studies nor the Classics, preferring to teach economics instead, just beggars belief.

On the continent, an expensive new school that does not include modules on intercultural communication and that does not have established exchange programmes with other universities would be sneered at. Here, in Britain, it's perfectly OK to be insular.

Oh wait, there's an international sales module in the Economics degree. I take it all back. Not.

AllanW said...

That should of course have read ‘ .. and the sprogs get the education they deserve.’ My apologies for the break in transmission. Normal service will be resumed presently.

Montrose77 said...

The way I figure, they are a private organisation - with private investors - who saw an opportunity. If it fails, then so be it, it's their loss.

Unlike state-funded alternatives, no one is being forced to either attend or fund it. If you don't like it, don't use it.

Why the fuss?

tucola said...

The possibility of Dawkins and Dworkin at the same institution made me think "there must be a limerick in this somewhere", so I've had a go:

"There once was a fellow called Grayling,
Who thought universities were failing,
So he after talkin'
With Dawkins and Dworkin,
Began pricey diploma retailing".

Juxtabook said...

I've reviewed the advertised English literature course on my blog. I have very mixed feelings about it.

Nicholas said...

This is a strange beast - a commercial "for profit" US-style "liberal arts college". Its relationship with the University of London isn't clear - my guess is that students will be reading for London external degrees. It's located in Bedford Sq - so could it be sharing premises with the AA or Sotheby's art school? It's clearly commercial and for profit, as Cavendish have undertaken a share placing (see today's financial press). The fact that "arty" types will have to study some science and crtitical thinking is good. But how an institution can hold itself out as specialising in the humanities when it has no capacity to engage in "foreign" languages or culture or ancient civilisation? How can it teach economics when it has no engagement with other social studies (bar law) or mathematics? How can it claim to provide an "Oxbridge" education if it is not research-led? Buckingham was founded as an "independent" university for similar reasons many years ago. It is an irrelevance (save for some wealthy overseas students) NCHUM will go the same way ...

Ben Murphy said...

As to whether the New College of the Humanities will succeed, time will tell. As to whether or not its success is something to be longed for or feared, empirical date will never suffice.

I understand the reasons why a teacher would want the chance to be a shareholder in a new institution. You risk your own money and your reputation, you know that people are gathered around to scoff, but you have the chance to build something new and better. That is a noble aspiration. I've always thought it better to cheer on when people attempt an ambitious but difficult task, than stand around on the sidelines waiting for them to fail.

In this case, even if the project is not a long term success, it has the potential to shake things up a bit in British education. Russell Group universities will need to demonstrate that part of their greatness lies in their accessibility to people of low income.

There is indeed a strong moral argument against this institution that Jack has stated: it allows people with more money to buy a "better" degree. If their degree is not, in fact better, it is a cheat. If it is better, they have allowed money to take the place of merit. (If there had been a Royal Road to Geometry, would not Euclid have been the first to destroy it?)

However, I cannot advance this argument without a degree of hypocrisy. My own career has been spent teaching at Latin American branch campuses of North American universities. My wage is paid by people rich enough to pay some pretty hefty fees for to get what is, I hope, a better education for their children. I don't like to dwell on the fact, but I have to be honest about it. Whatever the moral failings of the New College, I am unable to bask in a sense of moral superiority.

So why am I unable to bring myself to cheer for this college? Why do indications of its possible failure fill me with glee rather than dismay? I hope there is something more than a vague feeling of animosity towards some of the individuals involved.

Peter in Dundee said...

You are a bit previous labelling it a folly David, it hasn't failed or fallen into ruin yet. I'm with Montrose77, they aren't sucking at the public teat so caveat emptor, surely?

Anonymous said...

Actually UoL External programme charges roughly 3.000GBP IN TOTAL for a BA degree, not per year. So NCH students will have to register with them individually and on top of that pay an additional 54K for celebademic tutorials, pop-science presentations and and the chance to satisfy their "wow! I got to talk to the TV guy " mammalian insticts.

This has to be the educational scam of the decade, and the sad upshot of our educational policy.

Paul Fraser Webb said...

Re: the business/charity issue, it seems that there are two separate organisation here. One - the educational establishment - is reported to be shareholder owned and possibly operates on a 'for profit' basis. The other is a charity that exists to award financial support and bursaries (for details see

Ripple said...

The very fact that they will have to follow the UoL degree structure means that the extent to which this is a novel concept is debateable. The syllabus for the History degree is ripped off from the UoL. If anything, this is a insult to the UoL and its staff. Arts degrees at various UoL institutions offer inter-departmental courses. As part of my History degree at UCL I can choose to do a unit in English Literature or Classics. or whatever subject I might choose I can even go to other universities a do an inter-collegiate unit. The UoL is an alternative to Oxbridge, with very high student-staff ratios and excellent results. The staff offer a depth of ability which the NCH has yet to prove.

Cosmic Navel Lint said...

Although precisely how these noted academic celebrities and other worthy liberals can square such price-point-proscriptive elitism [£18K per annum in tutorial fees] with their otherwise "education for all" values shall no doubt have to remain a blessed mystery...

Cosmic Navel Lint said...

Also, as Nicholas touched on above, how can NCotH lay claim to be a university without any [currently] stated research facility?

Without that, as the FT's Education Correspondent, Chris Cook, reported in his June 05th article on this, 'the NCH would be a “glorified further education college”' - and a damned expensive one, at that.

FT article: