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Wednesday, 8 June 2011

New College of the Humanities - a guest post by Maria Wolters

Am delighted to host this guest post by Maria Wolters.


In his Evening Standard interview on his latest creation, the New College of Humanities (NCH), A.C. Grayling extensively discusses his motivation for founding the NCH. One quote in particular caught my eye.

[Grayling] claims that he is not setting up the NCH outside the public system to compete with Oxbridge. That's "press hyperbole". But there is excess demand at the top end of the education "market", and he does not believe we should continue to lose bright pupils to foreign universities, which are more than willing to court their minds and money.

Grayling also defends the fee of £18K per year.

The NCH fee "seems like a lot of money from one point of view, but if you're really committed, you'd do anything to provide your kids with a good start". Provided you have the means. "Well, you make the means."

So, let's put Grayling's assertion to the test. I have two small children, aged 5 and 3. If they are to be able to afford that high quality NCH education. I'd better start saving soon. But if I want the best possible university education for my children, should I aim for NCH?

The NCH offers standard University of London International Programme degrees, with an additional load of four courses on Logic and Critical Thought, Applied Ethics, Scientific Literacy, and Professional Skills.

If I were still working as a university lecturer, I would hope to teach most of the content of these courses within subject-specific classes - for the simple reason that these courses cover many skills which are best acquired while working through actual problems, and reflecting on one's own practice. (I hear problem-based and reflective learning are quite fashionable these days ...) This approach is hard to pull off when you have a large class of widely varying skills levels, but perfectly feasible if you have small groups, highly motivated, intelligent students, and plenty of 1-1 tutorials.

If I were a parent, I would be concerned about extracurricular time being taken up with additional modules when my children could be exploring other subjects, learning foreign languages, or simply immersing themselves in the subject of their choice. (Or, God forbid, having fun.) I would also like my children to be prepared for a connected workplace with international teams that telecommute from different locations with different cultures. This would require a strong cultural studies, area studies, and languages provision, none of which NCH offers.

So, let's see. I want to see my children well-prepared for a life which will require them to be flexible, work well across disciplines and cultures, and change careers as and when necessary. Surely there must be better options out there?

Let's look at Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany, a collaboration between Rice University, USA, and the German state-run University of Bremen. I presume that Jacobs University is one of the institutions Grayling wishes to outclass in his bid for the best and the brightest. I'm not picking it because it's particularly good - however, it's fairly typical for the level of innovation and interdisciplinarity that the best private foreign institutions offer.

Leaving aside for a moment the fact that Jacobs University is a full university, with undergraduate and graduate programmes and extensive science course provision, a quick look at the courses on offer shows two degrees that cover aspects of the Humanities proper, International Politics and History and Integrated Cultural Studies. Both degrees are highly innovative. Between them, they cover history, world literature, arts, aspects of philosophy such as ethics, and relevant social sciences. (His Grace may or may not be pleased to hear that the University even offers a course on comparative religion as part of cultural studies.)

What's more, the first year of all undergraduate programmes is designed to be interdisciplinary. Courses are often co-taught by instructors from different fields. Following the US model (and to a certain extent the model of classical German Humanities education), students are expected to take courses outside of their own subject area.What better way to acquire science literacy than to study an introductory science course with students who will make this their major?

Last, but not least, Jacobs takes pride in its multilingual and multicultural student body and perceives this as an asset, actively recruiting around the globe. Grayling, on the other hand, worries about "losing" UK students to foreign universities.

But what is the cost of all this high quality education? 18K Euros per year. That's Euros, not pounds. (For an additional 220 Euros per year, you get free public transport in Bremen and environs.)

To repeat - this is not an advertisement for Jacobs University. It's just an illustration of what £18K will get you elsewhere - more Humanities, more innovation, more interdisciplinarity, and, I believe, a much better preparation for the workplace of the future than the New College of Humanities in its current state offers.

14 comments:

Manuela said...

I am against this New College idea as well, for the same reasons that Jack of Kent explained yesterday, and I welcome debate on this issue, but this guest post is very muddled.

"I would also like my children to be prepared for a connected workplace with international teams that telecommute from different locations with different cultures. This would require a strong cultural studies, area studies, and languages provision, none of which NCH offers."

Dear me, this could have come form the mouth of some government minister talking about the economic impact of university. Cross-cultural communication is the biggest pile of crap I have ever laid my eyes on: you really do not need extra training to know how to have a meeting with a Japanese company. I have had to teach cross-cultural communication in the past, and it was basically a tired stereotype after another. "Cultural studies" also have very little to do with helping anyone deal with "international teams". Mostly they're just another word for literature, media studies and possibly some history, and they're often riddled with post-modernist nonsense. In any case, most Humanities degrees in this country do not offer any of the above, so NCH is not alone.

"A quick look at the courses on offer shows two degrees that cover aspects of the Humanities proper, International Politics and History and Integrated Cultural Studies. Both degrees are highly innovative."

Well, those are degree courses. It's a bit unfair to criticise a degree in English Literature because it's not a degree in International Politics. If you want to study international politics you go to a uni that offers that course. Not all Universities offer all possible courses, so your criticism, even if it were valid, would apply to other Universities as well, not just NCH.

"Between them, they cover history, world literature, arts, aspects of philosophy such as ethics, and relevant social sciences."

Again, those are two separate degree courses, so unless one does a combination of them, whatever they cover between the two of them is irrelevant. The University of Edinburgh, where I study, offers BA degrees in History and Biology. Between them they cover history, genetics, biology, statistics, etc. So what?

"Last, but not least, Jacobs takes pride in its multilingual and multicultural student body and perceives this as an asset, actively recruiting around the globe. Grayling, on the other hand, worries about "losing" UK students to foreign universities."

Non sequitur. Grayling said he doesn't want UK students to go abroad, not that he does not want students from other countries studying at NCH.

There are dozens of reasons to oppose NCH. From a student's perspective, it seems clear that £18K does not give you much more than other universities will give you for £9K or less (or, in Scotland, for free). From a political/ideological perspective, it puts us on a very slippery slope where 'going private' is the solution to everything. Grayling's quote about parents getting the money together if they're really committed is disgustingly offensive (honestly, has this man lost his mind??), and we should fight tooth and nail against this proposal and this way of thinking. But not using poor arguments like the ones in this post.

Michael Henley said...

Really interesting post. Thanks for writing it, and to DAG for hosting. With regards to Jacobs, I wonder whether you know if these courses were available from day one? As far as their website says they did not receive government accreditation for five years, but I don't know what the procedure or regulation is in Germany for awarding degrees.

I do not know whether NCH would like to offer a more innovative range of courses but they are currently restricted by the UoL syllabus surely? If they have no degree awarding powers of their own then they can only teach to the course of someone that does. The point on Jacobs offering better bang for your buck is certainly taken, though.

With regards to the international nature of Jacobs, that is certainly a positive, but I am not sure that we can draw from Grayling's comments that NCH is actively anti-diversity. Indeed, Jacobs state that their language is English. If NCH becomes as successful as they intend, given the level of international fees at places like Oxbridge, surely it too would attract people from all over the world?

I feel we have heard too little about what the plans are to develop the idea to draw conclusions, but I would love to see more debate and argument such as you have put forward, rather than personal attacks on the man and red smoke bombs at Foyles...

L.D. Durbin said...

In response to the first comment - whilst I accept that it appears as if NCH does not offer enough beyond what other universities will give for half the price, I do not accept that this justifies "opposing" it and fighting "tooth and nail" against it; in fact I find that approach deeply illiberal.

As a privately-funded institution NCH is free to charge what it likes, and if what it offers is not worth the cost then people won't go. What gives us the right to suppress NCH a year before it's even accepted its first intake of students? Shouldn't we instead judge it on its performance over a reasonable time?

As for the comparison with Jacobs University Bremen. Firstly, that institution has existed for over a decade, and has surely evolved during that time. Secondly, it was founded thanks to state support and international collaboration with other institutions. Not only has NCH not opened its doors yet, but it has received no visible support from the state nor other HE institutions - indeed, University of London went out of its way in a statement to shove it away at arm's length.

NCH has a lot of questions to answer regarding the quality of what it has on offer, and it should certainly accelerate its financial incentives for poorer students to study there (even beyond the 30% it claims to be aiming for). Nevertheless, stomping it into the ground before it's taken its first breath seems mindlessly reactionary to me. We should suggest improvements and work with the relevant figures to implement them, and if they don't listen then they only have themselves to blame. The same is true of us if we do nothing more than sneer at an underdeveloped opportunity.

Manuela said...

L.D. Durbin

Where did I say I want to "suppress" NCH, "stumping it into the ground" or deprive it of the right to charge what it likes? Last time I checked David Cameron does not have a direct line to my brain. By "fighting against" I meant fight "politically" not take up a revolution against private property!

I really don't care much about the details of what NCH intends to teach, or whether it will be a successful business venture attracting thousands of students. I deeply oppose the notion that the way to save the teaching of humanities from the savage cuts of this government is to make university education even less accessible than it already is.

Neuroskeptic said...

"As a privately-funded institution NCH is free to charge what it likes, and if what it offers is not worth the cost then people won't go."

No, that's not true. If business worked like that, no-one would ever regret buying anything.

People will go if they think it offers something worth the money.

Which is not the same thing at all.

All the critics are doing is pointing out that maybe it's not worth £18k. That's exactly as it should be, that's ensuring people have an informed choice.

You might as well say that homeopathy must work, because people pay for it.

It's a facile argument based on a dumbed-down interpretation of the free market.

Ben Murphy said...

Just to add something to Neuroskeptic's point: if you try to give a cash value to a university degree, what you have to look at is not the price the student paid, but the value that employers place on it. When I spend money on a car, what matters is that it gets me where I want to go. I can pay extra for a car other people will admire if I want, but I am the best judge of what satisfies my needs. But with a university degree, the reputation of the institution is not an incidental extra. People who are considering spending twice the fees charged by the University of London for a University of London degree plus an extra diploma really need to consider how much respect other people will give to that extra bit of paper. Early indications are not good.

For the record, I don't like to think of a university education as nothing more than a stepping-stone to future employment. I hope my students enjoy learning for its own sake, as I did. But in this case, the NCH has set itself up as a business, and so that is how I am judging it.

Al said...

Of course, there are already universities in the UK that encourage students to widen their studies in the early years- though I have a degree in Chemistry, in my first and second year I studied a course in business studies and one on meteorology- in theory though, I had the choice of almost anything Edinburgh had to offer as long as I met the entry requirments, the course wasn't over subscribed and it didn't clash. Some of my chemistry classmates took History of Art. This is normal in Scotland- you might notice the degrees there take a year longer, partly for this reason.

Maria Wolters said...

Thank you for the thought provoking comments, everybody!

It seems that the comparison with Jacobs has thrown many people off the main argument, which is that NCH is not nearly as innovative as pretends to be, and may not be worth the money.

As L.D. Durbin said, NCH has a lot of questions to answer regarding what is on offer- the aim of this comparison was to highlight a few of those questions. The Jacobs degrees mainly illustrates the kinds of things that could be done and achieved. While I personally quite like interdisciplinary degrees, one could make an argument for preserving the "pure" philosophy, history and English literature degrees that NCH offers. (Not to mention the fact that Jacobs does not teach law - I defer to CharonQC, the expert, regarding the quality of their legal education.)

The reason I like the fact that Jacobs offers more different humanities courses is that the more diverse the humanities faculty, the more diverse the possible combinations. Take for example the University of Edinburgh. I took the Celtic 1A course while studying for a Master's in Speech and Language Technology at Edinburgh (I was non-graduating, but still received marks for the courses and completed a thesis.) Celtic 1A was by no means part of the degree, but it was on offer at the University, and Celtic Studies were happy for me to come on the course. I went on to write my thesis on Scottish Gaelic.

I don't personally know anybody in the History or the Biology departments, but I imagine with the right reasons and supportive faculty, there's no reason a Historian couldn't audit a relevant Biology course, and vice versa.

To address another point, Jacobs certainly did not start fully formed, but it started as it meant to go on. I'm afraid the current signs are that NCH is starting as a high-level crammer for UCL courses. Not very original, and from what I'm hearing across the web, not a particularly new concept, either.

All of the commenters have said that Grayling's focus on UK students does not mean he's against international students. That's true, but having supervised and supported many international students through degree courses, I can tell you that this student population requires dedicated support and outreach. I hope NCH will have this in place, but initially, there seems to be a strong focus on the UK student population.

Finally, I sympathise with Manuela - cookie cutter cross cultural communication is a soul destroying subject to teach. But due to the extensive linguistic training I received during my undergraduate degree, I'm well aware of the vast evidence base for the importance of cross-cultural communication skills, both within and across languages.

This is not just theoretical waffle. As a German living in the UK, who has worked / is working closely with Japanese, Chinese, Asian American, Indian, and other European colleagues, I can't help notice how much smoother collaboration is when I go out of my way to study and accommodate cultural differences. I would go even further and say that as a lecturer and supervisor of many foreign students in Germany and the UK, I fail my students if I don't watch out for potential problems that are rooted in their original culture.

Maria Wolters said...

A quick qualification: I originally wrote this comment at 5pm, but wasn't able to post until much later. So, "all" refers to the people who commented before 4.30pm :)

I'm glad to hear that Al's experience of studying at Edinburgh reflects mine. Within the NCH context, it would have been good to see a formal requirement for this kind of interdisciplinarity. For example, Philosophy / History / English Lit students could be required to take at least one introductory econ or law course, and vice versa.

Peter in Dundee said...

I don't have your faith in the magical properties of introductory university courses to inculcate the entirety of a subject. Especially when a student is focussed elsewhere it seems most likely to lead to prejudice from being forced to study something the student is not interested in. Also first year science course rarely get down to teaching general science principles and may in fact be little more than 'stamp collecting' exercises.

This is why I am much more in favour of custom built science literacy courses of the type the NCH seems to be offering where modes of thought and understanding the tools for further and general study built rather than filling a student's mind with facts they will never use.

Finally the problem in this country is that university courses are too heavily prescribed and students don't have the freedom to follow side interests. In New Zealand I chose to do 2 English papers in a first year course of Biology, Chemistry and Physics. Our youngest is there crafting her own bioinformatics degree by virtue of a double major without a course prescription.

Maria Wolters said...

@Peter, I don't think introductory courses can come anywhere near instilling a full knowledge of a subject - all they can do is whet a student's appetite. I take your point re introductory science courses. I just think that nothing teaches people about the scientific process like conducting your own experiment ;)

I actually agree with your statement "Finally the problem in this country is that university courses are too heavily prescribed and students don't have the freedom to follow side interests." When I studied in Germany, I had this freedom, and really enjoyed it. My worry regarding NCH would be (a) that the additional courses in e.g. science literacy take away the freedom to follow side interests and (b) that there are not enough side interests to choose from.

English Pensioner said...

I don't think it will happen.
Many of our brighter students, particularly those from families with money, are already looking at Universities outside the UK. This seems to be mainly on the basis that they will be seeking employment in the world market, and that they should choose a University on this basis, knowing that there are Universities elsewhere which many employers will consider to be more prestigious than the majority of UK universities.
So to attract students, any new university must not only convince potential students that it has the necessary prestige, but also be competitive in terms of costs.

major custard said...

The reservations expressed so far about NCH are substantial, and moreover the notion of "science literacy" is unconvincing if it is supposed to mean anything more than the ability to scintillate at cocktail parties. Science is like anything else: to understand it you have to do and study it, there is no royal road. However, it would be good for education everywhere if it improves and is successful, so I wish it good luck.

Michael Henley said...

@major custard: Actually I would disagree with you about the science literacy and indeed I think it's quite important to separate the 'learn lots of fact' science from the 'read a story in the paper and be sceptical' science literacy. That is how I understand science literacy; not so much being able to quote trite anecdotes about the nature of matter, but being familiar with the concepts of peer review and the scientific process, being sceptical of individual sources, going out to look for more data before coming to a conclusion. These are all things that are intrinsic to the scientific process as we practice it in the West (or at least that's the only bit I have experience of and so can speak of), but are potentially alien to some people. We might be able to avoid the next Wakefield fiasco if more people are science literate and know to go and read a bit more than the latest Daily's headline before making decisions and forming opinions based on 'science'.

Science literacy shouldn't be the reserve of the scientists in the room as it is so integral to making informed decisions on the basis of what science produces.