AC Grayling is proof that you can be very clever and very stupid at the same time

At first, I wasn’t sure if there was any point to adding to the deluge of blog posts about AC Grayling’s plan for a new “elite” university. Enough pixels have been wasted on The New College of the Humanities than is surely merited. However, it cannot do any harm to give this nauseatingly awful idea as good a kicking as possible, just to make it never gets off the ground.

The NCHUM looks like a scheme destined to end in tears. It can’t award degrees, nor call itself a “university college”, which is how the NCHUM styled itself when it launched last week, nor even conduct any research. It’ll only take about 350 students. Two of its “star turns” are only going to give one lecture a year, which is far removed from the NCHUM’s claim that the 14 star turns “will contribute personally to your educational experience”. It’s also not clear how this scheme will break even. Apparently £10m has been raised, and the college hopes to break even by its third year of running. The NCHUM is financed by venture capitalists. They, surely, are going to want some return for their cash aren’t they?

I’m not really sure what AC Grayling, Richard Dawkins, Niall Ferguson and the rest hope to achieve with this college. I suspect that it’s probably the ability to earn a bit of cash, though Grayling has, it seems, higher motives. This is what he wrote in an e-mail to the President of Birkbeck’s Student Union:

A civilized society ought to pay out of the communal purse for the highest quality education for everyone, from the earliest schooling to high education. I hold that view, as I take it you do. But our society has chosen to pay for things other than the humanities and social sciences in higher education; it has turned over to universities the task of funding those subjects, and yet has done it in an unsustainable way because the true cost of educating to a very high standard is much greater than the fees universities will now charge…

You can have two reactions to the fact that the Coalition government (in fact: any of the three main parties) will neither fund universities adequately out of general taxation, nor allow universities to charge the true economic cost: you can protest in the hope of getting them to reverse their policy, or you can accept the profound unlikelihood of the latter, and seek another way of keeping high quality humanities education going over the long term.


He seems to have decided that “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”. It’s a good job Grayling didn’t take this approach to civil liberties. Instead of defending our liberties, he’d be on Newsnight demanding that terror suspects be jailed for two years without charge, rather than writing article after article criticising Labour’s assault on liberties.

If we accept Grayling’s good intentions at his word, then he’s being incredibly foolhardy. I don’t recall him ever criticising any government for cutting university funding, or introducing tuition fees. The only article I can find on universities for the Guardian is this one, where he attacks Peter Mandelson for suggesting that universities should provide more contact hours. In that, he argues that students should be essentially left to their own devices: despite that, the NCHUM boasts of a staff-student ratio of 1:10 and that it would give “personal attention” to students.

Dominic Lawson has written one of the better articles on this scheme. In it, he says:

One academic blogger [has labelled] this as a place for “Tim nice but dims whose parents are prepared to spend a fortune having them fall asleep listening to lectures by AC Grayling”.

Yet what harm does this do? If parents wish to spend their money in this way, why shouldn’t they?

Sarah Churchwell wrote something similar, in response to Terry Eagleton’s wonderful polemic, in which she basically argued that we should give this a chance.

I disagree. We shouldn’t “give this a chance” or let rich parents buy university education for £18,000 a year just because they can. That’s because the NCHUM seems to be part of the commodification of higher education. As university fees keep going up and up, students will surely see a good degree as their “right” – something they have “bought” – as opposed to something to be earned.

This has certainly happened in the United States, and has been increasing in Britain since the tripling of university fees (albeit going by anecdotal evidence). I know of talented doctoral students who are going to drop out of academia because they are tired – already – of teaching students who see a good degree as something they have bought, like a pair of jeans or trendy new sportscar. Some lecturers are now reluctant to go to graduation ceremonies – usually the high point of the university calendar – lest they get accosted by parents who are unhappy that their child has not received their 2.1 that they “paid for”. The simple fact is that a university education should be gotten on the basis of academic ability, not the ability to pay £54,000, as would be the case for the vast majority of students at the NCHUM.

Although Grayling wishes the NCHUM to follow the American model, that’s not what it’s doing. It took – of all people – the head of a privately-run university in Britain to point it out. From the Dominic Lawson article:

Buckingham’s ferociously libertarian principal told me that Grayling’s new college “is just a bunch of opportunists trying to make some money. They are not giving up their day jobs in the academic state sector. These left-wing intellectuals will just be making easy extra money, funded by venture capitalists”. But weren’t Professor Grayling and his band of “left-wing intellectuals” just doing what Kealey had long urged – to emulate the American system? Not a bit of it, said Kealey: “The great US humanities colleges are entirely charitable foundations, not profit-making bodies. Grayling’s lot are just going to be working to make a return for the venture capitalists backing them — and taking a slice of the equity themselves.”

Grayling says that he wants to improve university standards. Yet this is not the way to go about it. This is as likely to raise standards in universities as Oz Clarke selling bottles of WKD to upper-class schoolboys at £18,000 each is likely to stop binge drinking.

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3 Responses to AC Grayling is proof that you can be very clever and very stupid at the same time

  1. Rowan says:

    Good article. The only thing I don’t agree with you is you first sentence. I don’t think – never thought – AC Grayling was clever.

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