Having read the Young Academic report on the student protests in Chile and fears of the British education system being privatised; AC Grayling, British Philosopher and First Master of the New College of the Humanities spoke to Young Academic Political Correspondent Robert Gant about the issue. As the United Kingdom’s number one source of vibrant education news, Young Academic will be getting to the heart of the issues that really matter throughout the summer months…
The creation of New College of the Humanities (NCH), a private for-profit university was met with mixed reactions. After the announcement was made by founder and first master AC Grayling, politicians such as Tony Blair and Boris Johnson were keen to publicly back the initiative. However not everyone was thrilled with the foundation of the £18,000 a year private university opening in London in October 2012.
Accusations of elitism and capitalistic opportunism have been directed at both NCH as an institution and AC Grayling personally, something he strongly rejects. ‘It is true that NCH aspires to be elite, in the sense that it wants excellent students to whom it can give an excellent education. But elite does not mean exclusive. NCH aims to have over 30% of students on financial support.’
Mr Grayling argues this will guarantee NCH’s intake of student will be from across the social spectrum and not just students from privileged backgrounds who may attend private schools. Despite the argument that this policy leaves up to 70% of places available costing the full £18,000, he discards outright the notion that NCH is aimed at ‘wealthy’ students.
‘It is inaccurate to say that NCH exists for ‘wealthy’ students. The fee is the true cost of a high quality university-level education, as you can see by looking at what British universities charge overseas students (Oxford £20,000 a year for a BA; St Andrews’ new International degree US$30,000 per year for each of 4 years). The irony is that every British university good enough to attract foreign students relies on these fees for a significant part of their income; overseas students paying full fee thus (a) subsidise home students and (b) show that these universities are part-private already, and have been for a long time. This is dramatically so with the LSE: 68% of its students are foreign and paying full fee, the top fee being £26,000 per year for an MA. So, universities have been undergoing creeping privatisation for years because of government underfunding, now made vastly worse by the abolition of the teaching subsidy for humanities and social science.’
Interestingly, people involved in NCH argue very similar points regarding the state of higher education and its position within society to a majority of people who oppose NCH.
‘We have nothing to do with the Coalition government plans for higher education; we are emphatically independent of what it seeks to do. In fact I and most of those involved think that as education is a public good, education at all levels should be fully and properly funded from the common purse, because all of society benefits even though only a minority go to university.’
So why create a private university? The question continues to crop up in public debates on the issue. ‘It is quite wrong to think that, because most education should be fully supported by the public purse, no-one else can offer education too, that it must be a state monopoly only.’
Mr Grayling defends the project as a furthering of the education system in the UK, as opposed to the creation of a totally private higher education system. ‘All the publicly funded universities able to attract private students i.e. students from abroad are doing so using the facilities that we the taxpayers provide. NCH is taking nothing whatsoever from anyone else, still less from the public purse, but adding 1000 student places (eventually) and over 100 faculty jobs (eventually) while everywhere else is cutting.’
When asked frankly whether he would be in favour of a private higher education system Mr Grayling is clear in his thinking and answer. ‘No I am not in favour of a private university system. I think universities should be properly and fully funded. For decades now they have not been, and now things have got dramatically worse, so the defence of publicly funded education should be vigorous. But it should also be realistic: and there is no inconsistency in thinking that mainstream publicly funded universities cannot live alongside a few university-level colleges which bring funding into education from outside the public purse.’
In fact the very word private is something of an issue. ‘Fetishising the word as everything that could possibly be bad is one of those self-blinding moves that make clear thinking impossible.’
While re-iterating his point that NCH is not a force for evil, aimed at stifling the poor and giving further opportunity to the privileged few Mr Grayling goes on to conclude, ‘NCH is meant to be a challenge to the control, underfunding and prescriptivism of government, in the interests of asserting the importance of education in the humanities, as to which: only consider what we would think of a society which knows nothing of history, does not care about literature, does not consider the great questions of philosophy, and never reflects on the principles that underlie law and economics.’
There is no doubt that the government’s decision to slash funding for teaching the humanities is harmful to our universities and the academic make up of the nation. Mr Grayling describes the government’s policy on higher education as ‘disastrous’.
AC Grayling has in previous interviews described the adverse reaction and accusations as ‘really upsetting’ but firmly believes in what he is doing and that the NCH is a force for good. Whether the protesters who cry foul and the academics who oppose any kind of privatisation will ever be convinced by the projects merits is a different matter completely.
Regardless, government cuts and the foundation of the New College of the Humanities will change the educational landscape in the UK considerably over the next decade.