A group of prominent British professors and businessmen are starting a new private university that is directly modeled on the “elite US-style university system” of Ivy League universities, as the Guardian puts it. New College of the Humanities is to offer an “intense” three-year education for £54,000 — about $88,511.00 total; a single year is to cost £18,000 or about $29,503.00. Very big name academics including scientist Richard Dawkins, linguist Steven Pinker, philosopher Peter Singer (who’s a very controversial figure for his position about euthanizing infants with severe disabilities — but I digress) and others from the likes of Harvard, Princeton, Oxford and Cambridge will teach classes in English, philosophy, history, economics and law.
AC Grayling, a professor of philosophy at the universities of London and Oxford, says the decision to set up New College is directly in response to the British government cutting subsidies to humanities and social science subjects, and to its allowing universities to charge tuition of up to £9,000 or about $14,753.00.
The past year saw massive student protests after British lawmakers approved those tuition increases; previously, undergraduate tuition was £3,290 or about $5,391.00. The new bill, which is to go into effect in the academic year beginning in the fall of 2012, will “transform many English universities into the most expensive public institutions in the world.” By comparison, average tuition and fees at public four-year universities in the US being about $7,020. As the Chronicle of Higher Education points out, those sharply higher fees in the UK are a “radical transformation for a system that did not even charge tuition until 1998.” University professors in the UK have also seen their salaries and pensions cut.
Further galling about this new university is that, not only is it creating a “those who can pay for knowledge shall have it” model, but the 14 founding professors and “a group of wealthy businessmen” stand to profit by the whole venture.
The new private university, New College of the Humanities, was indeed “inspired in part by the business model of American Ivy League universities” and is “set up to deliver a profit to its shareholders who include the professors and a team of wealthy businessmen who have bankrolled the plan.” Scholarships of an unspecified amount are to be given to one in five of the first 200 students and an endowment fund is being set up to “try to increase that ratio to one in three.”
Professors have been critical of the new private university which, no matter how you look at it, is sending the message that an elite education is only in the reach of… the elite. Says Sally Hunt, general secretary of the lecturers’ association, the University and Colleges Union:
“At £18,000 a go, it seems it won’t be the very brightest but those with the deepest pockets who are afforded the chance.
“The launch of this college highlights the government’s failure to protect art and humanities and is further proof that its university funding plans will entrench inequality within higher education.”
Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students says simply that “an education in humanities from some of the leading thinkers in the world will be restricted to the richest.”
While the big-name academics will lecture at New College of the Humanities, they will not be doing the one-on-one teaching of students in tutorials. A “professional teaching staff” is currently being hired to do the grunt work of university teaching (i.e., actually meeting with and talking to the students, making sure they’ve done their reading, assigning and grading papers and exams).
Here in the US, there’s an ongoing debate about who has access to the Ivies. US universities talk about creating a student body that is racially, ethnically and economically diverse but the reality is that the likes of Harvard, Yale and Princeton “tend to accept students from wealthy families over less affluent students with the same credentials.” Schools that low-income students might attend, including community colleges and public universities — and, actually, my own college — see students choosing to major in professional tracks such as education, nursing, information technology and business. As a professor of Classics, I’m very much a teacher of the humanities — ancient Greek and Latin — but I know my students, many of whom work several hours a week, have loans to pay back. Often a student will express a wish to take a course like Classical Mythology but shake their head because there isn’t room in their schedule — and no extra money for extra courses — for anything besides requirements. The “life of the mind” is great to dialogue about endlessly, but rent, utility, medical and other bills must be paid.
I’m quite glad to keep fighting the good fight and infusing what lessons I can about humanities into the education of students who need professional credentials to pay bills and support their families and themselves. What New College of the Humanities teaches all too clearly is that education is as much a business as anything else, even the storied columns and corridors of the Ivy League, and the towers.
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Photograph of All Souls College, Oxford University by Richard Gallagher via Wikimedia Commons.
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