The New College of Humanities; is this the future?

This morning I read about The New College of Humanities (NCH) ; or rather before I read about the New College of the Humanities, I read alot of RTs on Twitter about the BBC article on New College of the Humanities – many of these tweets which were pretty damning of the thing.

But as Mary Beard says in her blog A Don’s Life: .

…if there is to be a sustained assault on the humanities, then maybe someone has to get off their ass and take the teaching into their own hands

she then quickly goes on to remind us of why it isn’t Oxbridge (and it isn’t) and really more like a US 4-year school (which it is). I really like Mary Beard’s blog; I’d love to have a drink with the woman… but I digress.

If you go to the New College of Humanities website they are offering a Degree (undergraduate only) from the University of London and they are offering (at a more expensive price than HEFCE uni’s) a lower teacher to student ratio; more private tutorials; a 20% scholarship rate for those who can’t afford the eye-watering tuition – and in that sense it is almost identical to a 4-year US undergraduate private school – some of which give you an excellent undergraduate education; oh and they want the money up front.

This model I don’t think is necessarily bad. Higher education in the UK, like it or not, is changing or is going to have to change because there is an 80% cut in the HEFCE teaching budget to Universities; with no clear alternative to how to deal with this other than raise tuition fees. I for one am not even sure with an 80% cut the rise in fees are going to amount to enough money to educate all that want to be educated.

Around 43% of the UK population go to University (or is it higher, I couldn’t find a good source for this) and how to pay for this? This is a huge problem, even if there were no economic crisis.

Setting up private universities might indeed be the way to go (though we should remember the NCH is a private college not University (which in itself seems kind of weird to me; but safe on the organizers part), those that are outside the HEFCE model where a true free-market approach could be used. Similar to what happens in the US. Now there is not any kind of real free-market model; its looking like just about everyone is going to have to pay the same fees (yes I know some are slightly cheaper but £9K vs. £8.5K isn’t really a big difference). I am also biased about this I guess, I have a degree from a US university which I paid for, mostly myself. So in my pysche I think; of course you have to pay for it (or someone does).

I suppose the fear is that the NCH will only educate the ‘elite’ and the ‘rich’ – but there are so many other factors that decide whether or not you go to University in the UK it is difficult to assess whether this fear is actually justified, realtive to who already goes to University. Acceptance to the ‘top’ universities depends more on where you go to school; what your post-code is; what your socio-economic status is, etc., etc. And given that the NCH at least on paper say they will offer placements for 20 % of people who don’t pay, this may offer opportunties to some people that would not have had them otherwise.

Elitism bothers me, it bothers me alot, but I am not sure that is what this is. Who knows what their selection process will be in reality? The NCH seem to have a fairly liberal attitude toward admissions, eg they will tell you the grades you need to have to be accepted upon interview. It may be that they meet a potential student from a really bad school and say you’re good, as long as you make a C in blah you are in.

It also may turn out to be the opposite and it may turn out that the students that go to NCH have degrees which don’t allow them to go to a job, or to graduate school or law school or whatever else they aim to do.

I am not sure how to feel about this in total yet, but I think its all too easy to look at who is setting up the school, how much the fees are and think – oh dear its just elitist. But I think we need to be careful about any unconscious bias about this. And only time will tell if this is a workable model for the UK.

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain used to be an academic, but now is trying to figure out what's next. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain and Instagram @sylviaellenmclain
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23 Responses to The New College of Humanities; is this the future?

  1. Katrina says:

    I think also they should be given a shot. The “parasite” claim that Mary Beard made is unfair, given that the universities who train the humanities PhDs are training them for jobs that in the most part DO NOT EXIST. The job market in the humanities is such that any new institution that will be employing humanities PhDs as teaching staff should be welcomed, not vilified because that they are not adding to the problem by producing PhDs themselves.
    I also see nothing wrong with some institutions charging more than others, and some charging the actual cost of delivering a humanities degree. The current model in the UK, that all higher educational institutions are (or aspire to be) research universities is part of the problem. There should be colleges that focus only on providing undergraduate teaching, and doing it well. So I am interested to see how things go with this.
    It’s definitely time for things to change, and to see more institutions start up offering a range of different models of tertiary education would be a great step forward.

  2. akkie bardoel says:

    Although I taught at a US university for nearly 10 years, I don’t really understand the public university/private college distinction very well — perhaps because admin. never engaged me much. The most serious concern here is that any new private school of higher ed sets standards that are comparable with the public schools. One would think that they would meet with the graduate schools ab initio to ensure that this is so. I am most surprised by the info that 43% of people in the UK attend university. To me that is an extraordinary figure. I too would like to have a drink with Mary Beard. Exceptional scholar and personality!
    Interesting post Dr McLain!

  3. stephenemoss says:

    With regard to the charge of elitism, the NCH website posts details of their minimum entrance requirements ( By retaining the option to take students with as few as three GCSEs and two GCE ‘A’ Levels, there is no sign that they aim to be intellectually elite. I suspect that most new students will achieve much better, but it does give the college a financial safety net should the number of ‘rich + brainy’ applicants fall short of requirements. There will always be a pool of ‘Tim, nice but dim’ students whose parents are happy to stump up a small fortune to have their kids fall asleep listening to AC Grayling.

    Setting aside issues of elitism, the cynic in me wonders whether the motivation for creating this college is a genuine concern for the provision of humanities teaching in the UK, or the opportunity for a handful of academics to make a bit of extra cash. Certainly, one could envisage that the NCH could be run with a much more efficient administration that the vast, unwieldy and expensive admin/HR departments that now dominate the public universities. All of which should mean bulging trouser pockets for Grayling, Dawkins et al.

    • I think at £18 per year per students – with out HEFCE money to help support will probably not cover the costs very well – employing staff, etc – after all of the Estates etc are paid for – don’t think Grayling, et al are going to be rolling in the cash, though its alot for individual – for a small limited intake it won’t end up being all that much.

      • stephenemoss says:

        Anyone know how many students the NCH plans to admit each year? If admissions amount to 300 per year then the college could hit a steady state of 1000 students, i.e., ~£18M per year income. I know this is no more than idle speculation, but I would expect there to be the potential for significant profits. After all, this is a private university into which investors have already sunk £10M. They’ll be looking for their money back with interest.

  4. Mary Beard says:

    We should have a drink sometime!

  5. Dave says:

    The specific thing that worried me about the announcement is that they have commercial investors who are expecting a profit on that investment. Is this the case for the US Ivy League on which they claim to be based? I don’t think there’s a Harvard Corp taking money put of Harvard so, in comparison, this new venture will be handicapped. But I’m not up to speed on the detas of US private colleges so may be wrong.

    Either way the timescales of universities – tens to hundreds of years – don’t mesh with the quarterly reporting scales of commercial investment, so I see trouble ahead even without arguments about the principle of this college.

    BTW Where is it going to be based in London?

    • stephenemoss says:

      Interestingly, from my point of view as a UCL academic, the NCH will be in Bloomsbury, more or less on the UCL campus. It’ll be interesting to see what response this elicits from our Provost, Malcolm Grant, to have a competitor set up camp on UCL’s doorstep.

  6. It seems unlikely to me that their “star headliners” are going to be doing more than one or two lecture courses a year – that would be much more plausible for the “tele-academics”. I was confused by something someone wrote on Mary Beard’s excellent blog about “100 hours of lectures each” (see a comment of mine there), but I now suspect that actually means:

    “100 hours of lectures between them“.

    The major question, I guess, is who is going to be doing their nitty-gritty of one-to-one tutorials, essay marking and feedback, and small group stuff. I’d be 95+ % sure this won’t be the headliners on the website. For their and the students’ sake one hopes these footsoldiers turn out to be seasoned scholars and good teachers (the better version of the US private liberal arts school model) and NOT “put-upon adjunct Professors paid by the Semester” (the US for-profit model, if one is being cynical). It needs to be the former, if they are to live up to some of the rhetoric.

    I guess they might be able to find a fair few battle-hardened arts academics who have taken early retirement in their 50s who would be interested in signing on – or perhaps there is enough surplus of younger people in the arts subjects (given the scarcity of arts jobs in the UK Univ system) that there will be takers from that pool. They might also pick up good people if some of the new Univs start to axe arts courses, as has been widely predicted.

    I would guess personally that the NCH set-up will appeal primarily to students from outside the UK, perhaps from the US, who want both “the London living experience” and an English degree. It will be interesting to see if they get many takers from within the UK. Imagine it will be rather few to start with, unless funded by hefty scholarships.

    • @stephenemoss says:

      Various bloggers this morning have commented on the likelihood that the ‘star’ names among the ‘professoriate’ will be doing no more than a mere handful of lectures. Dawkins himself has reacted in a rather prickly way ( to say that he will be giving ‘some lectures’. His comments certainly do not suggest a full-on commitment to running courses, setting exams and so on, i.e., all the necessary encumbrances of directing a degree course.

  7. nico says:

    I do not wish this new establishment bad, but so far it sounds to me that what the fee is really buying is access to the “celebrities”, a bit how you can get J-Lo to sing at your birthday party if you’re rich enough. Maybe it will create a new class of private higher education establishments, or it will just end up being a flash in the pan. Time will tell, interesting time and other clichés apply.

  8. cromercrox says:

    There seems to be quite a broad spectrum of support for this venture. Here is more praise from the man whom posterity will show to have been the greatest stateman of this or any other age:

  9. Tom says:

    In your paragraph regarding elitism, you suggest that perhaps the accusation is unwarranted on the grounds that many other factors decide whether someone is accepted into a university, including socio – economic factors.

    I’m puzzled that you don’t see an £18,000 pa tuition fee as making one’s socio -economic status determinate in their access to a supposedly top level of education.

    Aside from this, the £18,000 fee is mandatory in 80% of cases; any other factors relevant to a selection process must still be accompanied by the capacity to pay this unvelievably high fee so I’m unconvinced by your appeal to said factors.

    As a philosopher and student of the university of London I’m disgusted by this news.

  10. I agree with alot has been said about how on earth are they going to administer this – which is why I go back to the fact that even at £18 million, if they want to maintain a 10:1 student:staff ratio they are not going to have much money – but maybe in the future it will build and they will. Who knows? Its interesting to speculate and thanks to all for the interesting views and comments.

    @Tom – with respect to elitism, the fee question is a separate issue – any fees necessarily make it more difficult for the rich vs. the poor – this is a given, however with tuition fees on the rise, the difference is less than it once was, and indeed some will ride for free. Interestingly the University of California state funded school system fee hikes coincided with more financial aid and more less-advantaged folks getting a college degree – see here .

    • Tom says:

      Thanks for the reply 🙂

      I take it that by saying the issue of elitism is distinct from that of fees you are talking about accepting only intelligent students. I think the policy is that one needs 3 As at a level. Maybe some will be accepted for less but it is unlikely to be a policy. I accept this may be speculation.

      But this aside, I don’t think you convincingly argue away the charge of economic elitism which I am most concerned with and remains the most serious problem with the NHC. That existing tuition fees already create a deeply unfair gap between rich andmore offers no defense of a situation that makes the problem worse. A tuition fee.of £18,000 pa is extraordinarily high and there are not many who can afford it. Again, even granting some students will be admitted on lower grades, my point is that many more won’t be accepted to a supposedly top tier level of education because they are not born into high wealth.

      Finally the issue of scholarships is one I am unconvinced by; the inequalities being introduced into the very structures of the education system cannot be undone or reconciled by a small number of people getting a free ticket. I appreciate that this is a deeper issue and one we are unlikely to settle here.

      I enjoyed your piece but I think there are important issues of economic inequalities that are not addressed and that, in my opinion, make the NHC a thoriuhly unprogressive and dissapointing project.

  11. Another thought about it being expensive and ‘only for the rich’ makes the assumption that the NCH is going to be the greatest college ever; and that everyone should deserve a chance to go there. It may actually be really poor (as in a poor education); just because you are a ‘top academic’ doesn’t mean you are a top teacher – or a top tutor. Not everything that costs oodles money is any good.

  12. fugstar says:

    Its really interesting how far away it is from something that I would set up (in my own deluded)fantasies. It reminds me of kerry packer cricket, but worse, this is definitely an epistemicidal institution.

    But why not? there are enough mugs out there with oxbridge complexes.Maybe it will encourage more academics to make the future with their own institutions.

  13. Tom says:

    Good point- I’ve briefly been taught by Grayling and on the basis of those lectures I wouldn’t pay any money to be taught by him again! Too busy being a public academic to give any time or effort to the work.

    However I think we ought to recognize that they clearly do see it as a place where the very highest level of academia will occur and as such they’re intentionally setting out to establish an institution of the highest quality that excludes anyone who isn’t very wealthy.

  14. tsm says:

    I am worried that a place (or a “professoriate”) which plagiarises the syllabus of the UoL degree programmes and offers them at inflated prizes, should be hailed as a solution to the problems in higher education. Certainly seeing their own courses included on the NCH syllabus has been a surprise to a large number of academics across the University of London.

    Even Grayling’s claim that they will provide scientific literacy etc to their students looks a lot like a copy of the fantastic LSE 100 course which is now compulsory for all students at the LSE. The only possible exception may of course be that the NCH will parachute in the occasional big name lecturer.

  15. Cristo De Lay says:

    The NCH is NOT a university. It is a private tuition enterprise preparing students to sit UoL External exams like many other ‘colleges’ do around the world. Students registering with NCH will have to be individually and independently registered with London International Programmes. Registration with NCH and succesful completion of NCH courses is neither necessary nor sufficient (i.e. it is irrelevant) to obtaining a UoL degree. The UoL press release makes everything clear :

    his is a very sad story indeed. NCH pretends to be a Uni (‘to rival Oxbridge’, lol) when it is not (it awards no degrees, it conducts no research). Then it tries to pass as a ‘liberal arts college’ which is clearly not as it has no curriculum of its own and prepares students for some other institution’s exams.
    Then it uses the worst marketing of its kind, trying to downplay the fact that it is just a preparation centre for UoL External Exams and that all the additional coursework contributes nothing towards the UoL degree with which NCH is not affiliated in any shape, size or form.
    Add the fact that UoL External charge 3.000GBP IN TOTAL for the same BA degree, compare it with 54K that NCH charge, and you have the educational scam of the decade.

    Then AC Grayling resigns (perhaps gets ‘resigned’) from Birkbeck to lead his 18K per year non-college, non-university, exam-prep school. What a sad conclusion.

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