Why AC Grayling’s New College of the Humanities could be a blessing in disguise

Photography: New College of the Humanities

Last week I was as shocked as most people to discover AC Grayling’s new plans to set up the New College of the Humanities (NCH) in London to open next year. One-on-one tuition, lectures by Sir David Cannadine, Niall Ferguson and Richard Dawkins and here’s the cracker: £18,000 per year in fees.

Eighteen thousand pounds a year? That’s six times the amount I am paying for my undergraduate studies here at the University of Warwick (though they will be charging £9,000 from 2012). An outrageous sum of money! It will mean that for tuition fees alone, the total cost of a three-year course will be £64,000,without accounting for food, supplies, and the already expensive London accommodation.

My first thought after reading this article was how ridiculously unfair this system is. A new university charging that amount of money will simply not be accessible for the majority of the population. I certainly wouldn’t be able to afford it, I know few that would. Is it even worth that much? Obviously this would widen the social inequalities within our society, causing rifts between the rich who can afford the very best, and the rest of us, who simply cannot. Regardless of academic abilities, it will only be the rich who will get into this university, excluding the majority of us from getting a look in. What with no loans available for private university degrees, it will only be those with money who can afford to study here.

NHC fight back to this, claiming they do not “want to be exclusive” and in order to ensure everyone has the chance to study there, will be offering one-fifth of its students full or part payment of their tuition fees through their scholarship and exhibition schemes. So, out of an intake of 1,000 pupils, just 200 will receive help with their fees. Perhaps more than other universities, but what about the other 800 who will receive nothing? It seems appalling unfair and restricting to almost everyone, and not at all convincing.

After an extended Facebook argument with an old friend where I ranted for quite some time about the absurdity of the university system, the unfairness of private schools, the lack of grad jobs and whether paying for university is really worth it, I let my thoughts simmer away quietly.

However, a recent article by Boris Johnson published in The Telegraph which condones the operation hands down, naturally sparked my interest. He argues that the number of well-off individuals’ offspring that cannot get a place at university for some reason or another would now have a place to go. Instead of clogging up spaces in Oxford, Durham, Warwick etc., the rich kids would get a great education from a top university, and leave those who couldn’t afford it to take up spaces at institutions such as Cambridge, where they allegedly pay some of the lowest fees in the country due to their wide range of scholarships and bursaries and also allegedly don’t judge you on your parental income.

According to the article, 10,000 students per year travel to America to get a degree, some of them paying up to $60,000 for it instead of what could be money being put back into the British system to ensure that our skilled graduates will go on to work in our industries. This is unsurprising when it was reported last month that there were over 700,000 applications to university in the last academic year, an all-time record. Johnson argues that this elite system will keep more students in the country; better for the university system and the economy in the long-run

.Another pro of the NCH was the fact that it was a humanities based university, offering degrees in just five subject areas;

  • Law
  • Economics
  • History
  • English Literature
  • Philosophy
Despite this being a small choice, surely the fact that a university is being set up just to teach those subjects which are so desperately in need of funding next year after the drastic government cuts is a good thing? I study History and Politics, two budgets I know are being slashed in desperate attempts to reduce the deficit (amongst some suspicions the government is leaning towards the promotion of a private university system in the UK). The top academics lecturing you, more contact hours, fewer people in seminar groups – this is what students want from their university, and why shouldn’t they demand it? With a rise in fees should come a rise in experience, and this is exactly what the NCH is offering. Surely a university that is suggesting this much attention to be given to the subject areas above can only be beneficial for research and development, and proves to those who solely support STEM research that the humanities are very much still alive and worth studying today?
Johnson backs NCH as an idea that ensures private universities run alongside public ones and not replace them, which creates a new model of university that will be free from the red tape of government bureaucracy and free to do as it wishes. If that means spending all of its funds on securing the best quality humanities degree for its students then that is what NCH will do.

Despite this, even with the proposed scholarships and funding, the question still remains for the majority; what about those who cannot afford to pay for an alternative? They have, then, nowhere to turn to. They cannot use Mummy and Daddy to buy their way into a top university when Oxbridge reject them. AC Grayling’s plan may have some serious advantages to the public system; freedom from regulation, the ability to focus on the subjects it wishes, and leaving 1,000 more places at the top universities open to students who may not be able to afford NCH. The two-tiered school system of public and private is flawed too, however – this can be seen by entering any inner city comprehensive – could we be going the same way with our university system leaving only the rich with what some may describe as a fundamental human right? In addition, the assumption that undergraduates would not be taking up valuable Oxbridge place remains only relevant if students see the universities as equal, which they may not do.

However, the primary issues of funding and accessibility are still flawed. Those who fail to get a place at their chosen university and do not possess the funds are left with few options; they are forced into clearing places, to redo their A-Levels or in the case of many, the simple fact of having to abandon hope of their university dream altogether.

Published in The Student Journals on June 27 2011.

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